Something in the Air Tonight
1660 was a year of great upheaval in England, with the beginning of the English Restoration marked by the ascendancy of Charles II to the throne. That same year, another event—lesser known, although no less revolutionary—occurred, which would affect the future of Science forever: the invention of air.
Now I don’t mean that someone found a container and mixed together 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and some other stuff. Air as a gas had existed for millennia. And I don’t mean air as an idea or concept. Rather, I mean the invention of air as an object of inquiry—something that could be studied and was worthy of such scrutiny.
Using the recently invented vacuum pump as an experimental apparatus, Robert Boyle published a book called New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, a volume that aimed to describe the properties of air. Although this milestone may seem somewhat uninteresting to non-science geeks, the thoughts forwarded in this work formed the cornerstone of Boyle’s Law, which would later become incorporated into our fundamental understanding of how gasses behaved in closed systems. In short, Boyle’s publication helped to change the way in which we saw the world, rendering the once-invisible apparent, if still ephemeral.
But when we think about air today—if at all—we don’t stop to ponder how it works. We just know that it does. We instinctually know that creating a small vacuum at the top of a straw will cause the liquid below to move up due to a pressure differential and this, in many ways, demonstrates the true power of science, for many of its principles are simply accepted as truth.
In her book Always Already New, Lisa Gitelman draws a parallel between the adoption of scientific knowledge and acceptance of media, arguing that both must fight to prove themselves and, having done so, proceed to weave themselves into our lives until they become unremarkable and it becomes difficult for us to ever imagine how we functioned without it. Divorcing media from technology, Gitelman suggests that a key point in understanding the impact of media is describing the social experience that arises around new forms of media and tracing how these experiences evolve over time. Indeed, the transitions between introduction, acceptance, and banality often tell us much about the socio-cultural context in which media reside, with concerns inevitably transitioning from “What is this new technology replacing (i.e., what is lost)?” to “What are the health implications (e.g., is this going to give me cancer)?” to “What are the implications for the community (e.g., will this bring about the apocalypse)?”
Gitleman further argues that as we forget the social processes that govern media, allowing its protocols to become invisible, media gains a sort of authority and legitimacy, as the state of being influenced by media becomes “the way it always was” even though it wasn’t. Take a second and think about how protocols surrounding media—all media, not just new media—have become incorporated into your life. How do you interact with media? What are the rules (official or otherwise) that govern such behavior?
In front of us is a sampling of the ways in which we might interact with media and, latent in these actions, is a set of protocols that instruct our behavior. But, more than just guiding our interaction with the media, Gitelman argues that these protocols also serve to update and stabilize our sense of the abstract public, with communities rising around shared ritual. Another way to think about this is that we ascertain our position in the community by locating ourselves within an ecology of practice.
In some ways overlapping with community bounded by taste, we see that similar patterns of interaction with, or response to, media helps to delineate those who are like us from those who are not. Speaking of taste how many of you prefer the ad to the left? The right? No preference?
In late 2009, IKEA decided to change its font from Futura to Verdana, a process that has little, if any, inherent significance. The switch, however, provoked no small amount of discussion online, with ardent supporters arguing against equally strident naysayers. Aesthetics aside, the interesting take home message from all of this is the way in which fonts—and typography in general—represent precisely the type of incorporation that Gitelman was talking about with respect to media. As media becomes naturalized, we tend to focus on the content such that methods of production become invisible. When we encounter text, we register what is said before we think about how it’s presented. To quote Adrian Frutiger,
“If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page…When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”
Gitelman goes on to introduce other forms of inscription, namely recorded sound and new media, suggesting similarities between the cultural relationships that surrounded both sets of protocols.
“Whole new modes of inscription—such as capturing sounds by phonograph in 1878, or creating and saving digital files today—make sense as a result of social processes that define their efficacy as simultaneously material and semiotic.”
We see resonance between the early Dictaphone and speech-to-text input software like visual voicemail or between the gramophone and code-to-speech programs like auto-translation. Gitelman warns, however, that inscriptive media also are inextricably connected to history and attempts to examine these artifacts historically are necessarily affected for we are studying the process of inscription through the products those processes produced! Problematic, to say the least. I suggest that the first step to successful study is to attempt an understanding of the factors that guide our inquiry: our primary sources for understanding the phenomenon of recorded sound come from print, which means that we must necessarily question the relationship of print to recorded sound at the time.
How did these two media forms coevolve, abut, and compete? If we accept Habermas’ position that the protocols of print media and speech were ensconced in public life and that recorded sound helped to reshape the public, we immediately see the need to question written accounts of recorded sound.
Ultimately, Gitelman’s point is that the socio-historical investigation of media presents a dense and complex web of associations for the would-be researcher, with recorded sound intersecting with family structures, gender, economic demands, and socio-political concepts. The introduction of recorded sound, like that of new media, necessitated a corresponding response in established social structures as it floated out from the gramophone and through the ether, leaving a trail of revolution and restructuring…just like the last time we invented air.