Understanding Media

“From Papyrus to Pixels” discusses how the predicted downfall of the book never quite came to be. Books never quite had a singular definition, and they are still useful, widely purchased, and don’t seem to going anywhere anytime in the near future. Electronic books offer unique advantages in some situations (lighter in weight, more discretion, etc.), but they have not replaced print books completely and it seems that they won’t do so. Audiobooks and other digital reading formats also offer unique opportunities and challenges for readers, authors, and publishers, but again have not completely replaced the print book. This reading was particularly interesting to me as a librarian, because I often get questions like: “Do libraries still exist?” “How long do you think libraries will still be around?” “How are you adapting to everything moving to a digital format?” Most of the these are poorly veiled inquiries that are really trying to get at the perceived demise of my field (and my job). These questions seem to lack the understanding that this article presented of technological mediums always being in some state of flux, with each format presenting new and unique challenges and opportunities.

The so-called digital age presents more opportunities for self-publishing as there is a relatively low barrier to entry, which is access to an Internet connection and some sort of device. While this levels the playing field to some extent (at least while net neutrality is still a thing), the sheer volume of content produced also presents its own challenges, which leads into Sardar’s work and the idea that we, as media consumers, are always behind in catching up on web content. In “Why should we study the Media?,” Sarsar mentions Lazarsfeld of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, who said that one of the functions of the media was to “reduce active public action” because “people are too busy consuming.” Perhaps all of us have felt burnout on social media and seen the popular idea of social media breaks or “cleanses.”  While this overwhelming consumption was discussed as a function of the media during the 1940s, its implications can still be seen in the present day media. While reading this, I immediately thought of a very recent example in the news, which was the appearance of Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to President Trump, on Meet the Press, in which she stated that the White House press secretary was offering “alternative facts” rather than admitting to lying about the size of the crowds during Trump’s inauguration. This example plays into an overarching goal of the Trump administration, which seems to be aimed at making the truth and facts convoluted and ultimately difficult to figure out. Perhaps this is all centered upon the hope that Americans will simply be too overwhelmed with all the media input to investigate and find truth, to trust any media source, and to continue any meaningful engagement in politics. Before reading this, I hadn’t thought of this truth-evasion as some sort of strategy, but it makes sense as we all probably face at least some level of technological fatigue in all of the emails, tweets, and other notifications that happen throughout our daily lives.

-Sarah Kirkley


Media! That’s a Thing!

I have always appreciated the term “media studies” more so than its individual terms.  The separation between media, as a media scholar, is frustrating. Little to no difference exists between the studies of the lot. To view a film, for example, requires similar techniques as studying a painting. Look at the composition. Who created it? What audience is it for? The questions go beyond if the media has artistic merit, or if is something you would own.

You might notice a similarity between these questions and those you might ask as you read a primary source document in a history class. There is a reason for that; they are one and the same. This is part of what Sardar and Van Loom want to say in “Introducing Media Studies.” Their other objective is to explain the history of the study and criticism of cinema and television, or what they dub “mass media.”

The explanations provided in “Introducing Media Studies” are thorough and easy to understand. They give perhaps the best introduction of the Frankfurt School I have read in a monograph or textbook; for once, Adorno did not bring fear to my heart. I have issues with the layout of the book; sometimes it was the equivalent of reading Manga, with non sequiturs in lieu of construction. Credit where credit is due, the work is unique, and I was not bored with the content.

The question of what to do in the world of new media comes up in the article from The Economist regarding the future of the book. One aspect of this essay that I found most interesting was how the advent of self-publishing and e-commerce, not e-books, have affected bookshops. Amazon sells more paperbacks than Kindle versions of books, the ebooks being more aligned toward a darker, albeit entertaining, community.
I am reminded of a bookstore in Asheville, NC. Situated in Grove Park Arcade, it prides itself on being pet-friendly, as well as offering champagne as you read and purchase. I could spend hours there, more than I would ever think of spending at my local shop.

Asheville is just amazing, but that is a digression for another time.

But what I kept thinking about as I read the article was how the history of the book is the history of history, in a sense. Just as online sellers and self-publishers are making headway in the industry, independent scholars and online learning has intervened in the arc of academia. Georgia State University has been given a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to try and figure out how to take Doctoral programs into the 21st century.

Should it be a concern that students come into college knowing how to tweet more than how to write? Perhaps. But we as scholars and pallbearers of discipline should embrace the ways in which people interact with technology. This is one reason I advocate for films being used as primary sources in the classroom. It can help many students grasp concepts when they are on celluloid, or binary code, rather than ink on trees.

Digital Dangers and Data Democratization

Sardar and Van Loon addressed the dangers of taking media at face value over a decade ago. Many of the same problems addressed in their graphic article persist within corporate media today. However, as “From Papyrus to Pixels” demonstrated, creation and distribution of media is becoming democratized through digitization. This means that, with the majority of human beings on the planet simultaneously creating and consuming content, there sometimes arises an abundance of ideas and opinions which rarely agree. However, the propagation of biased information is in no way a modern issue. If one were to check the young United State’s post-revolutionary presses, one would discover multiple cases of political slander, many perpetrated by the nation’s founding fathers. However, as humanity and technology progress onward, so does understanding. Many people are increasingly aware of biases within the corporate and private media. While many during the previous election cycle fell victim to misinformation, others became more informed, and more discerning. Instead of being a threat to intellectual progress, in many ways the digital data deluge is just the most recent, and most accessible contribution to the historical narrative. Despite its associated challenges, there are many positive results of widespread digital media.

Many advantages to the digital creation of history involve ease of access. Historical sources are currently limited to what relics physically survived. The majority of historical study is made more difficult by a lack of sources. For example, those sources which survived the Haitian Revolution are the sources made of lasting materials, and the sources deemed important enough to preserve. Until quite recently, information was limited to original documents, or physical copies of those documents, which have been either intentionally preserved or recently discovered, and  (specific to the example of the Haitian revolution) were only accessible by traveling to Haiti, or France. If a young researcher from America’s heartland decided, after reading a historical monograph about Toussaint Louverture, that her purpose was to research the great revolution of Saint Domingue, she would have to not only scrounge up travel expenses, but also learn traditional French as well as Haitian Creole. Access to materials over the past decade has grown increasingly simpler. While any serious Haitian scholar will still need to learn French and Haitian Creole, most modern studies of foreign lands do not require as much traveling. As time progresses not only are historical sources becoming more available, but the nature of public record itself is changing. While the Haitian revolution began mostly by word of mouth, more recent resistance movements (perhaps not as violent, but just as revolutionary) were begun by the stroke of a keypad. Individuals who self publish their memoirs in the method outlined in the reading, or who keep any form of social media are consciously (or subconsciously) contributing to the historical narrative. In many cases, these perspectives are less filtered, and less edited than many historical accounts. Future historians will not have to wonder how individuals reacted to historical events because those tweets are being archived, along with any photographic evidence. Born digital records also expand the scope of contributors, granting a platform to groups who traditionally had no means to voice their concerns in a meaningful public manner. These born digital archives will provide an abundance of historical resources to scholars who will have equal levels of access.

Despite these advantages, skeptics abound. Many people discount social media content because it is faster, less credible, and more liable to be manipulated. The article “From Papyrus to Pixels” examined the similar concerns revolving around the current creation of digital media, specifically in the form of books. This article particularly focused on the history of the written word, examining its various incarnations. Just as books have changed over the past centuries, so have historical records. In both cases, previous generations have called into question the legitimacy of any new public platform. This will likely never change. Regardless of technological advances older generations will contribute dissenting voices to debates on the validity of the newest mode of communication. As humanity progresses towards the digital age, it makes sense that the format of the written word becomes less written. In reality, many things have changed about the dispersal of information throughout society, but the mode of distribution should not minimize the validity of ideas.

“Curated” Information Overload

We exist in a world where information is coming at us all the time; through our phones, through TVs at the gym and the bar and the waiting room, through our browsers open to news and social media while we are at the office. It is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the deluge of media washing over us in a myriad of forms. The readings for this week made me consider not only how we get our information, but how we choose which sources and what information is valid to us and how we have transitioned from a passive audience to an active one – or so we think. Unrestrained freedom of choice from the media buffet allows us to create our own reality. There has been an excess of talk about the “social media bubble” after the presidential election – how the polls got it wrong, how nobody saw this coming. I started to consider how transparent immediacy and hypermedia play into this problem. We hear only what they want because we are not only active listeners, we are active ignorers. We aren’t knocked over by the endless waves of information, we surf them, joyfully.  We all have social media accounts (okay, not all of us, but most of us can’t afford solar panels and need a real toilet) and we all use these platforms to different ends. Some of us are far more active than others, building up a large base of followers to our clever tweets and posts, creating a community of participants that think the same way that we do. We retweet and repost what we like and agree with, and our friends do the same, and so on. When someone says something we like, we… well, we “like” it, and when someone says something we don’t like, we unfollow them, delete their comment, or (worst case scenario, sorry [not sorry] aunt Christine) we unfriend them.

So, now that we’ve all created our social media echo-chambers, we read only what we want to read and assume that the world thinks like us, because we have created an environment where our world is made of like minded Facebook friends. We cross-reference this imagined reality on multiple platforms of carefully constructed safe-zones and follow the same people on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We only visit news websites with stances we agree with, or at least the ones we consider neutral. We roll our eyes, mumble and look away when the TV at the laundromat is tuned into a network that we don’t agree with.

Like most, I am constantly checking my phone. When I am at my computer, at the minimum I have Facebook, Twitter and NPR tabs telling me what is going on at the world (usually double that). They are often all telling me the same thing in different formats. I am “immersed” in windows and apps, and while I am aware of the hypermediacy of the format, I may not be aware of the content that is missing. Have I not created a digital, transparent interface when the skew of the content becomes repetitive and self-reinforcing? Bolter and Grusin discuss immersion in a virtual reality where the senses are no longer aware of the medium – but I would argue another version of a virtual reality is when we get to choose what to base our truths on from the vast spectrum of media. When we effectively blot out the remainder of the spectrum which we do not agree with, when there is no dissenting voice to make us question or think critically, we become convinced that everyone must agree with us. This is a dangerous reality to exist in, and we are now seeing the results and suffering the consequences. A schism has opened in our society because neither side even acknowledges that the other’s thought processes may be valid. Instead of using the internet as a platform for civil discourse, we get snarky behind a screen or delete, delete, delete.

Everyone thinks they are actively engaged in the media. We not only take in information, we are putting it out into the world. Instead of having the nightly news read to us after dinner and waiting for us on our doorstep in the morning, we go out and find the news for ourselves and participate in spreading it. We want to believe that we are out to find the purest form of truth, but there is an awful lot of content to sort through, and sources are sometimes questionable – even untraceable. But we are thinking for ourselves! Or are we? Sardar and Van Loon’s discussion on the evolution of media studies suggests that the news was once thought to serve the purpose of telling the people what they needed to hear. Consumers were meant to absorb, but not filter the nightly news and the local paper. Media was meant to be a unifying platform to align opinion. Over time, that perception shifted as people began to think critically about what they were hearing. The media could no longer change opinion, because minds had already been made up. People were looking for reinforcement of what they already thought. Now, not only are our opinions unchangeable, media that lacks reputable sources – shared memes and fake news – compound the issue. We already want to believe news that furthers our position. When we see an article on a social media platform that aligns with our beliefs, do we fact check it, or click “share” before considering the source? Now that anyone can produce media for consumption, it is our responsibility to watch what we eat very, very carefully. Active consumption does not equal critical thinking.


– Pam Enlow

Something Actually Interesting in Perspectives


I’d like to draw your attention to the November issue of Perspectives on History, the official publication of the American Historical Association.  It’s all about issues with digital history.  The articles are not required reading for our class, but highly recommended:

Matthew Delmont, “Does It Count? Scholarly Communication and African American History” @mattdelmont (great scholar/twitterer)

Walter Hawthorne, Brandon Locke, and DeLacey A. Yancey, “Digital History, from Both Sides”

Rick Anderson, “Open Access, Copyright, and Licensing for Humanists: What Historians Need to Know”

Robert Bowen, “A Message from the National Humanities Alliance: Yes, Your E-mails to Congress Matter”

P.S. A few dates in the syllabus were not switched from Tuesday, when the class met last Spring, to Monday, but rest assured that the class always meets on Monday evenings!

Welcome to Spring 2017


My name is Dr. Alex Sayf Cummings, and I am delighted to work with you this semester as we explore the intersection(s) of historical scholarship and digital technology.  This is an introductory course, meaning that we will survey a wide range ideas and tools as we think about how to convey history to many different audiences.  The course is meant to be starting point for you to embark on your own engagement with technology, and your fellow students and I are here to help you go wherever that takes you.

You can learn more about me and my work here.