By Steven R. Garcia
Going into the first week of readings, I suspected a very theory-heavy introduction. However, what the contours of those theories would be was a complete mystery to me. The only work I could relate to in understanding the effects of new mediums and cultural changes, at least of similar magnitude to that of understanding mass media’s historical impact, is David Harvey’s The Condition of Post-modernity. I refer specifically to that chaotic and ephemeral description of post-modernity that Harvey presents, which I then likened most to Janet H. Murray’s “Inventing the Medium” introductory chapter. That similar language of chaos and ephemerality, as presented by Harvey, is also found in Murray’s presentation of the differing cultural and intellectual camps attempting to make sense of human knowledge adapting to new media. In her explanation of how ‘humanists’ and ‘engineers’ both interpret and explore new means of communication and knowledge-processing, Murray evokes a sense of trepidation for mid-century and turn-of-the-century scholars grappling with the advent of mass media, communications, and most recently the Internet. Media studies, then, is not just understanding the technological medium itself, but rather “the rich interplay” between “cultural practice and technical innovation” (Murray 5). It is the ‘augmentation’ of the human experience of learning and thinking, and how humanity changes to better process the world around us. After reading Murray’s short introduction, though, I asked myself what all this high-minded theory equated to in the practical application of digital history. How does, say, an online exhibit about Atlanta’s growth as a major southern city inform our understanding as scholars about the theoretical nature of using a digital medium to communicate history?
Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon’s quirky but informative graphic novel (or comic?) provided a two-part explanation to my question: one, a lot of big name historians and institutions have dealt with the question of media and technological innovation; and two, is there even a need for an academic theory on the impact of mass media? To the first point, Sardar’s explanation on the history of media theories, from the functionalist approach to Frankfurt School Marxism and the works of de Saussure, Foucault, and Derrida, is helpful in laying the ground-work for terminology and outlining the ‘who’s who’ of media history. I found the section on semiology vocabulary most helpful, especially the bit-by-bit definition of key terms that I and the rest of the class will no doubt encounter in our future readings. But, after I had finished reading it, I questioned the work’s relevancy today. Besides being a bit grin-worthy and attractive to read, a lot of the content found within seems old and outdated (with good reason, as the piece is from 2002). Rarely today would I hear of semiology being used to examine why CNN chooses to run certain stories or why Netflix decides to fund certain series, even in an academic sense. Perhaps our vocabulary for media and technology has, at least now in 2018, become so deeply ingrained in our everyday understanding of the world that there is no need for a theoretical approach. However, I do argue that media, that link between human understanding and technology, still warrants study. To this end, I found an article from the UK’s The Guardian about the relevance of media studies as a course of study. It echoes my sentiment of ‘why bother?’ when media and technology are so pervasive nowadays. At the middle of the twentieth century, I understand why the field took off as it did. Now, I question whether or not our own academic understanding (and our academic concentrations and fields) evolve fast enough to keep up with technological innovation’s current pace.
Link to The Guardian piece: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/08/media-studies-bad-press-alevel-soft-option