If Communication and Empire is heavy on the details but a bit dry, then one of the optional readings for this week, Carolyn Marvin’s (1988) “Annihilating Space, Time, and Difference: Experiments in Cultural Homogenization” is loquacious in a more colorful way, giving a rich account of the relationship between late nineteenth century technologies and the cross-cultural contact they facilitated, as well as general innovations in uses of “new media.”
Marvin weaves together accounts of the emerging technologies such as the telephone, and wireless radio from popular scientific journals, newspapers, and even fiction of the late nineteenth century. In this way, it is a nice account of some of the popular reaction to new electrical technologies (something we don’t get a sense of from an industry-based approach like Winseck and Pike’s).
Much of the chapter is devoted to the idea that instantaneous electronic communication was accompanied by a kind of “cognitive imperialism” (p. 193) wherein Anglo-Saxon innovators placed themselves at center of the moral universe, able to reach out to the Other, in a universally comprehensible language. Marvin devotes much time to the idea that cross-cultural communication lead some to hold visions of an earth with a homogeneous population.
Marvin also discusses specific technologies such as the phonograph, which allowed for preservation and brought to light the issue of control of culture. For example, with the phonograph, there were fears a recording might not be a preservation of the most desirable version of history.
The author gives interesting cases of the telephone used as a “theatrophone,” a way of transmitting live entertainment such as opera, theater, and sporting events via wireless telegraphy. Wireless telegraphy also allowed a system of electronic news, a prime example the reporting of presidential election returns over telephone lines which became an increasingly coordinated system over time.
An interesting point Marvin makes is that occasional home broadcasts for entertainment and news had not yet arrived at the idea of mass media “programming” as we think of it today. She does present an exceptional case of a Hungarian radio station which starting in 1883 featured daily programming and news for an elite audience, but that model when imitated in the U.S. ultimately failed. Overall, Marvin’s is an interesting account of effects of and forecasts for technology as the “mass audience” was just starting to become a possibility.