Random Thoughts on ‘Always Already New: Media, history and the data of culture’

Finished reading Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New: Media, history and the data of culture a few days ago. I have to say, I was quite pleased with it on a few levels. First of all, I bought in at the same time as Hayles’ How We Think. It was completely haphazard – I love Hayles’ work, and Gitelman’s book was recommended to me by a colleague – so it was much to my delight that in the opening pages, Gitelman discusses Hayles’ work – and wraps the book up with thoughts on the digital humanities.

Other than happy connections, I really liked how Gitelman set up the direction of the book. Interesting, clear and pretty to the point that history is not absolute; that it can be told from many perspectives and can (and often should) be cognate of the peripheral contexts that contribute to creating that history. The ‘example’ chapters were really interesting – I never knew that the phonograph was originally invented as a dictation/playback object. As a sociologist, it made me a bit warm and fuzzy to read about the social forces that shaped it into a musical device. Of course, I know that social and economic elements impact/influence/shape the form and function of objects, but often, history tries to be “about the facts” in a way that does no account for the nuanced ways that history is shaped. Indeed, Gitelman talks about the difficulty in tracing such histories of  technologies (and objects), since often, it was only the ‘facts’ and milestones that were documented – not the subverted appropriation of the object over time until it is fully re-purposed as was the case of Edison’s phonograph.

I admit to being a bit confused heading into the section on ‘The Question of the Web” as she began with a part on the materiality of card stock and bibliographic content as ‘proof’ that could be constitutionally protected (referring to the 1968 court case of United States v. O’Brien and the burning of a draft card). But as I read along into the transition of digital copies, then digitally created content, I had my “hmmm … aha!” moment I enjoy so much when reading. The last section on the book focused on ARPANET and the development of the web… at first I was a bit ‘oh no, not this … again … ‘ but Gitelman brought be back by focusing not on the technological development (that I’ve read more times than I care to count) but on the process of documenting the process of development.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book – there were a few passages that I marked with a sticky tab for future reference – I would definitely recommend it for a good, thoughtful weekend read.

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