WHEN OLD TECHNOLOGIES WERE NEW: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century by Carolyn Marvin

WHEN OLD TECHNOLOGIES WERE NEW: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Marvin (U. of Penn., Annenberg School of Communications) turns a scholar's eye to the social and cultural history of late 19th-century technologies--specifically, the electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and phonograph. Gleaning from popular and professional sources of the day, she assembles a lively picture of emerging elites and benighted publics in America and elsewhere. Electrical engineers were keen for recognition as an expert elite, distancing themselves from craftsmen by founding professional societies and journals and coining suitably arcane jargon. The public at large, divided between enlightened laymen (urban, educated, white and male) and the rest (hicks, non-white, and women) perpetuated cultural clichÉs and Victorian mores. We learn, for example, of Persian nomads who turned telegraph wire into bracelets, and of women's natural addiction to the telephone given their inherent loquaciousness. The inventions themselves raised societal concerns. The potential for political control, for deliberate deception or abuse through communications channels, was early recognized. So was the potential for physical harm, in the form of electric shocks, weapons of war, or capital punishment. But physical benefit might also accrue--especially electrical ""power"" to boost virility. The electric light became a source of public spectacle and personal adornment long before it invaded homes. Some saw the new communications media as a threat to social boundaries; others envisioned a new one-world democracy. In many ways, Marvin's multiple visions of technologies born just a century ago are a sharp reminder that ""la plus ca change. . ."" One has only to think of society's alarms and excursions on the theme of nuclear energy or recombinant DNA to see the relevance and timeliness of the author's engaging sociotechnological insights.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press