Decentering Technology’s Role In Harmony

Reflection on Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era by Lisa Gitelman

Despite the way humans keep fucking up, I’m a firm believer that we can still course correct. In my opinion, what can help us get to a place where such work is possible is by admitting that for the most part we have dedicated our gift as a species for technological innovation to mostly fit within a capitalist system. I thought this throughout my reading of the first half of Lisa Gitelman’s  Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era as I made my way through chapters that argue against the contemporary opinion that the internet and related digital technologies will be the key to facilitating greater democratic access to information and discourse, showing how those opinions have precedent in similar late 19th century conversations about Edison’s phonographs.

from 'The Aviatior' (Miramax Films, 2004)
from ‘The Aviatior’ (Miramax Films, 2004)

I was on board early on with Gitelman for her desire to partake in dismantling the progressivist narrative about technological progress. In the introduction, Gitelman states “As moderns and as consumers, we have been conditioned to think that technologies supersede each other one by one, the present ever liberating us from the past” (4). Gitelman doesn’t explore this conditioning at length, but my understanding of it is that we want to see the generation we are a part of as working at a greater level than the one before us. We need the internet to be democratic because outsourcing democracy to a technology requires less devotion on our part, less participation in much of the ‘dull’ activity that characterize democracy (thoughtful consensus, sociological research, active listening, an openness to change). Gitelman’s text proves unsettling for how easily we could take a digital copy, do some finding of ‘phonograph’ and replacing with ‘internet’ and send it off to the future to be about our current circumstances. In the future of this book itself, Gitelman lobs back the mic at those who deem digital humanities to be the new godsend, after stating “Digitization isn’t necessarily more democratizing if those artifacts getting digitized still remain selected primarily by committees. (223).

To reinscribe technological history, Gitelman focuses on the ambient environment of the late 19th century that provided the circumstances that allowed the phonograph to succeed, namely the widespread use of shorthand. Fascinating about Gitelman’s description of shorthand’s impact on the phonograph is the sensorial connection she makes between the two. If a person doesn’t give much it much thought, shorthand could be understood as purely a text-based technology and the phonograph an aural one, but Gitelman shows how the phonograph relied on people’s increased desire for verbatim speech, which shorthand systems were the harbinger for. Even though shorthand was locked to text, they provided readers the ability to reproduce what they believed to be the words spoken at an occasion they themselves weren’t present for therefore giving greater credence to the aural quality of reading. If we also buy Gitelman’s idea that the phonograph was a reading machine moreso than a talking machine, the gap between the two technologies requires a hop rather than an Evil Kinevil-style jump. The rise of the phonograph fulfilled people’s expanding hunger for Truth through the promise of a paperless future, “a way to keep things live, to save the vibrance and authenticity of experience without succumbing to the dryness of textual evidence and the arcane, or obscurity, of different notational systems” (Gitelman 65). And though that future has yet to arrive, I wonder whether the forces that largely regulate technological innovation—perceived economic demand, notions of ownership, legacy—even want us to recognize the world in a vibrant and authentic way.

!!!Apologies for the lack of captions on this clip!!!

I worry that patriarchal ideals of legacy are what corrupts our uses of technology. I worry that continued dependence on individual geniuses for addressing environmental devastation, dwindling food sources, and communication breakdowns excuse us from enacting our own genius. We forget that “However it might have been represented in the press, invention was Edison’s full-time job, one that seems to have lied upon the collected expertise and institutional features of the laboratory he built, even as much as it depended upon any “private idea” (Gitelman 93). We want geniuses because the problems are too numerous and seemingly insurmountable, and while I don’t want to discredit the labor of people like Edison, one thing I take away from Gitelman is that there are ingredients for innovation around each of us for use if we summon them up, and are supported by others and have access the necessary sources. We must choose carefully, and recognize our potentiality to contribute en masse to a more harmonious means of living. Technology can help us get there, but we must first be honest about our goals in their usage. There is potential for authenticity if see our own embodied knowledge as capable of radical change. The machines will do what they’re invented for. The body has to be shaped to do ethical inventing.

 

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