Looking Back at FoNM 2007: Distance

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As this month’s Frontiers of New Media Symposium approaches, I’m continuing my look back at the 2007 symposium and linking to the podcasts made of our conversations there.

The first panel of the second day of the 2007 symposium focused on “Distance.” This panel featured Lisa Gitelman, Jason Loviglio, and myself. You can hear or download the audio of our panel here (1 hr 21 min; 74 MB MP3).

Lisa Gitelman is professor of media studies at Catholic University and the author of, among others, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture–a fine example of the kind of intersection between history and media studies that the Frontiers of New Media project aims to support and sustain. Her talk (which begins at about minute 3:25 of the podcast), on “Writing at a Distance,” used two famous “first” messages–Samuel Morse’s “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT,” transmitted by telegraph in 1844, and the first protocols of the ARPANET, forerunner of the internet, in 1969–to consider the technological history of writing at a distance, and the social and cultural construction of both distance and region. We have “always already” been annihilating distance, Lisa concluded. Distance is relative, and near and far are always in flux.

(The University of Utah has a historical ARPANET connection. The initial ARPANET consisted of just four computers, one each at UCLA, UC-Santa Barbara, Stanford, and the University of Utah. The first message transmitted on the fledgling ARPANET was, legend has it, the suitably biblical “Lo!” It was meant to be the more prosaic word “login,” but the system crashed after transmitting the first two letters and had to be restarted.)

I followed Lisa on the panel; my own talk begins at about minute 27:00. I was losing my voice that day and heavily medicated–perhaps that accounts for my rose-colored memories of the symposium?–but did my best to describe my work on the political and commercial construction (or deconstruction) of distance one hundred years ago. The duelling telephone systems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–AT&T’s national network versus tens of thousands of tiny independent competitors–embodied different cultures of communication: different billing structures, different protocols and priorities, different attitudes about who and what was near or far. (Protip: I get interrupted by some kind of giant evil robot at about minute 51:38.)

Jason Loviglio is Director of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Jason’s talk begins at minute 54:34. From the telegraph and the telephone, Jason turned our attention to radio. His terrific talk, drawing from a cultural history of public radio and specifically the public radio voice, explored the ways NPR programs use voices and accents to convey or perform a nostalgic (and paradoxically cosmopolitan?) sense of localness and place. (Picture the voices of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, or Tom and Ray Magliozzi of Car Talk fame.) It also featured The Lone Ranger, the Grand Ol’ Opry, and the internecine warfare–news to me–between National Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Radio, and Public Radio International.

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