DMIN 547 Distilling a Dream for Leadership: The Nature and Art of Global Leadership / Jason Clark
All That Jaz
A Review of New Media: 1740-1915
by Lisa Gitelman & Geoffrey B. Pingree
#dminlgp #newmedia #gitelman #pingree #forrester
“WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”
—Samuel Morse’s first message transmitted by telegraph in 1844
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Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree have edited an anthology of ten scholarly articles titled New Media: 1740-1915 that represents academic musings on the meanings of media. Its particular and effective conceit is to consider “new” media “… during what the editors describe as the era before broadcast, or what we might call the very long nineteenth century.”
In these pages, the reader is introduced to various inventions that often presage later media. The zograscope pictured above, for example, was a very early way to view things in the now-wildly-popular 3D (think Shrek or the just-released version of Star Wars’ Phantom Menace), and the stereoscope looks a lot like a fancier, better-crafted prototype of the Viewmaster I had as a boy. Who knew the physiognotrace, a device for tracing facial profiles, would be popular in colonial America long before CSI and its various spinoffs? In another intriguing piece, Katherine Stubbs laments the connection moderns make between the telegraph and the Internet, but then seems to reinforce many of those same connections with tales of 19th century gender-bending and identity-shifting that took place in the anonymous, high-tech world of the telegraph operator, with its unusually large representation of females in the workforce (initiated by management as a way to control spiraling labor costs.
The articles touch on countless interesting themes, including of course the big three taboos of “polite conversation:” politics, sex and religion. On this latter topic, Diane Zimmerman Umble offers a fascinating glimpse into the impact of the phone’s introduction to one particular subculture in her article, “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country.” More than once I thought of some of the Fundamentalist inclinations in my own upbringing with occasional sermons I heard preaching against rock and roll or decrying the evil backmasked messages that might be decoded by manually moving 45s and LPs backward on the turntable. The author cites the pithy recollection of one Mennonite man whose elderly father noted poles being installed and remarked, “There goes the devil’s wires” … which later might have sponsored the melodic question asked by CCM pioneer, Larry Norman, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
Umble seems to raise some of the same issues as Daniel Forrester’s recent book, Consider, as well. Forrester’s notes that for all of its time-saving benefits, technology has in some ways outstripped our ability to reflect and use the flood of data in beneficial ways. So, too, with the telephone in Amish country:
For its proponents, the telephone was associated with profit, comfort and pleasure. It widened the world for rural people , providing potential connections to centers of power, information and culture…. Old Order people were not blind to the practical benefits of the telephone, but they were deeply suspicious of its social and spiritual implications.
As the old adage goes, sometimes “the medium is the message.”
Liminality and Determinism
Gitelman and Pingree themselves offer the following broad theme that links the ten articles:
Exploring moments of transition when each new medium was not yet fully defined, its significance in flux, these essays aim to clarify our understanding of the specific material and historical environments in which new media emerge and of the ways in which habits and structures of communication are naturalized or normalized.
In other words, there seem to be two unique features of the “new media” surveyed in these ten scholarly tomes: liminality and technological determinism. They are liminal in that, as they are first introduced—and often in spite of their apparent success—their eventual importance, their “staying power” is yet to be determined.
And speaking of “determined,” it is Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase quoted above—”the medium is the message”—and who also advanced the notion of “technological determinism,” the idea that ”technology determines history.” Here “All of the authors argue against technological determinism, rejecting the notion that superior media merely vanquish their predecessors.”
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Exhibit A: The Jaz Drive
The wild and woolly era of the personal computer offers several examples of technologies that represent the right idea at the wrong time. Consider the Iomega Jaz drive.
In 1995, the world was awash in 3-1/2 inch floppy disks. Every magazine seemed to include an AOL disk helpfully glued into its pages. While the format had effectively quadrupled the storage capacity of the 5-1/2 inch disks it replaced, there were now hard drives readily available that could hold a whopping 1 gigabyte of data! (I remember buying the first such drive on behalf of the non-profit I served in the mid-90s and we felt we got a steal of a deal at $1000 for such a drive.) Backups for such large drives were a nightmare, even with CD-R technology that was still expensive and just beginning to become popular. Then in early 1995 Iomega introduced the Zip drive, followed shortly thereafter by the Jaz drive. The Zip drive was built on floppy technology but offered 100-MB cartridges that held as much as many typical hard drives. Jaz drives went a step farther, with 1 GB cartridges (later 2GB) that was based on hard drive technology.
It all seemed like the right technology at the right moment, and within what seemed a matter of months, Zip disks were everywhere … until they developed the dreaded “click of death.” In an effort to save a matter of a few cents, Iomega started selling their Zip cartridges without a small internal foam washer. Without this washer, the disks would quickly go out of alignment, often ruining the drives and thereby “infecting” any Zip disk placed in the drive—or anyone else’s Zip drive. Over the next three years, Iomega stonewalled the public and the press, quietly replacing the foam washer back into their production process but refusing to acknowledge the problem.
The Jaz drive, based on different technology, suffered much less except in the case where dust managed to get inside the cartridges themselves, but Iomega kept the price relatively high and the Zip woes soured the public on any removable drives with the Iomega brand, especially with CD-RW drives now in plentiful supply that could actually re-use CD media.
Today, Solid State Drives seem to be changing the storage landscape once again, but the external hard drive market has boomed since 1998 when a consumer complaint was filed against Iomega. Virtually all of these external units have featured fully enclosed hard drives with all of the smart components embedded into each one. It seems to me Iomega might have owned this market with “dumb” and less-expensive high-capacity cartridges that relied on the electronics of the host drive.
They got greedy at just the wrong moment and disproved “technological determinism.” But maybe they proved Daniel Forrester’s point yet again!
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The infamous Iomega Jaz drive.
 Richard Menke, “New Media, 1740-1915 (review),” Victorian Studies 48, no. 1 (2006).
 A zograscope that offered its users a 3D version of “virtual reality.”
 Contemporary Christian Music.
 Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, New media, 1740-1915, Media in transition. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 144.
 Rosalind H. Williams, Notes on the underground : an essay on technology, society, and the imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 218.