2009 Symposium Synopsis

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The second Frontiers of New Media Symposium, on September 18th and 19th, 2009, was (in our modest opinions) a great success. Fourteen leading scholars of communication, history, and media came together for two days of lively and provocative conversation about the intersection and future of their fields. The participating scholars, University of Utah faculty, students, and guests all came away with new contacts, new energy, and new ideas about the past, present, and future of media and media scholarship.

(Click here for audio podcasts of all talks.)


Our keynote speaker was AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information and author, most recently, of The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy. Dr. Saxenian’s talk drew from her classic work on the rise of Silicon Valley as a hub of high-tech activity over competitors like Boston’s Route 128, and then took the story forward to describe how immigrant engineers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are transferring their technology entrepreneurship back to emerging regions in their home countries and creating new high-tech centers in places like Taiwan, Israel, China, and India.


The second day of the symposium saw a full schedule of panels and discussion—our large seminar room was packed with students, faculty, and guests. Speakers at the first Frontiers of New Media Symposium, in 2007, examined the history of new and old media in the particular context of the American West. For the 2009 symposium, we broadened the scope of our vision, talking about regions and frontiers all over the globe, without abandoning our focus on the role of places, spaces, and regions. Supposedly “place-transcending” or “distance-annihilating” media remain, we know, powerfully shaped and defined by local cultures, regional advantages and disadvantages, territorial governments, and by the earth’s environment itself.

Our second day panels were grouped under three topics—“New Media and the Environment,” “Region, Place, and Geography,” and “New Media and the Practice of Scholarship”—but in fact there was considerable overlap and interaction between all the work discussed, despite the wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and topics. This reflects—we hope—the thought put in to planning our conference, but it is also testament to the creativity, curiosity, and intellectual breadth of the scholars assembled.


Toby Miller (University of California-Riverside) and Kevin DeLuca (University of Utah) began the day by raising tough questions about the impact of media technologies on our environment. Miller challenged our sense of electronic media as “clean” or “green”, urging us to think of our iPods, laptops, and Blackberries as “toxic, industrial age machines,” built to break and destined for landfills. DeLuca juxtaposed the physical beauty of the West with the physical and mental “pollution” created by constant, instant communication. Dylan Wolfe (Clemson) and Erich Schienke (Pennsylvania State) offered more optimistic visions of the relationship between the environment and new media. Wolfe discussed ways environmental activists use new media to defend the natural world, while Schienke described his work on information systems as tools of ecological governance in the People’s Republic of China.


Our second panel featured a mix of history, historical geography, and communications scholarship, organized around relationships between media and place. Jennifer Light (Northwestern) discussed the history of cartography—making maps—as an imperfect aid to computation and social planning. Using Federal Housing Administration maps from the 1930s, Light showed (as Erich Schienke had also done) how maps help us think about and analyze places, but always risk effacing the real places themselves. Craig Robertson (Northeastern) explored the history of the U.S. passport—a form of media that makes it possible for the state to harden its borders, controlling those who are citizens and excluding those who are not. Fred Turner (Stanford) described the Pepsi pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair to illustrate his work on how computers and information technology got attached to free market ideologies. And Casey O’Donnell (University of Georgia) built on AnnaLee Saxenian’s keynote with a talk describing the very different paths taken by the video game industries of India, China, Korea, and Vietnam.


In our third panel, we put ourselves under the microscope. How are new media changing what we do as scholars—both what we can do, and what we should do? Sharon Leon (George Mason) described her work at the Center for History and New Media, building powerful new tools for historians and other scholars designed to make academic work more collaborative, relevant, and accessible to all. William Turkel (University of Western Ontario), already at the forefront of digital methods in history, discussed what he sees as the next frontier: new 3-D printers and other fabrication devices that may bring us away from our computer screens and back into the physical world. Dan O’Connor (Johns Hopkins) discussed new ethical questions faced by social media researchers, and the unexpected practical difficulties involved in studying communities as connected and media-savvy as the scholars and pollsters who seek to analyze them. Finally, Matt Basso (University of Utah) returned our focus to Utah and the West, describing the work of the American West Center and innovative public history initiatives like the Utah American Indian Digital Archive.


The day’s final panel was a wrap-up session, a wide-ranging discussion in which we worked to synthesize what had gone before. Rob MacDougall (University of Western Ontario), this year’s David Simmons Visiting Professor, gave a talk designed to summarize and package the day’s discussions and to lay out a road map for future work. Then the day’s panelists, along with University of Utah faculty and students, discussed ways to sustain the excitement and momentum generated by the symposium, to advance the study of media history in general and to continue this initiative at the University of Utah.


Feedback about the symposium has been very positive. People praised the mix of participants—both the diverse range of disciplines and approaches and also the mix of junior and senior scholars. Of course, every one present praised the setting. The relatively small size of the symposium also seems ideal for maximum interaction and participation. More than one participant made a special point of thanking David Simmons, not just for his support of the symposium but his engagement with it. “It is amazing to have a benefactor who is truly, deeply engaged in the topic, who took the time not only to support our work, but to engage with it by meeting us for dinner and attending the keynote,” Toby Miller wrote in an email. “For me, that was remarkable, in all my decades of working in the field.”

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