Archive for September, 2011

Running Time

We recently *cough*sort of*cough* completed our timeline project, where in we traced the development of information technologies from cave paintings to telegraphs to Youtube. We used the program simile and an accompanying wordpress plugin to display the time line on our course blog . While initially I expected this project to be little more than listing events and corresponding dates, I quickly found myself diging more into secondary sources for further events and more dates. Once you find one patent battle, you start to ponder…what happened after that? What was the immediate consequence/result of x event. Timelines can grow out of control without the right trimming and before you know it you are in a jungle of events that are not equally important. Some events are simply more important than others. If you want to keep your project manageable, you have to know where to make the cuts.

I worked with the Broadcasting group. You will notice our red points and lines on the timeline as anything relating to radios and televisions, or at certain turns the rise of organizations related to such technologies. My specific task was to dig up the time line of television, throw it up on the time line, and not go crazy. For those who are not familiar with the history of television…let me tell you something. Television has a rather convoluted history with many inventors, some of who were unaware of each other, and rapid changes, as well as an international battle over who transmitted what type of broadcast for the first time. Often, according to Fishers’ book Tube: A History of the Television, newspapers would call a transmission the first one, but they would omit in the United States as an important qualifier.

Having reviewed my peers’ work, I have considered my own shortcomings. I posted a huge swath of events, but they lack images and video. If one covers the history of television, a visual medium, there should be plenty of visual aids…it’s television. In considering improvements to my section, the addition of significant celebrity appearances or particularly popular programs would make a welcome upgrade to my work. With regards to the gaps of my time line, I pondered over how one could track the history of television. There are two distinct, but obviously related, categories, namely technological developments and pop culture. Researching a communication technology should also include its uses and contents. My time line primarily tracks the physical development of the technology without a strong emphasis for what the technology conveys. You will notice that I follow Farnsworth and Zworykins quite closely as they invent new technologies, smaller pieces of the television, yet the first television show or the rise of television celebrities is hardly a footnote. The two histories weave together, yet the historian uses vastly different materials to research each one. I have a nagging suspicion that leaving out the message and only speaking to the development of the medium dismembers the history of the television. Only knowing that the Gutenberg printing press revolutionized the creation of books takes away what books were being printed? Who read them, and what was the impact of that book being circulated so widely? The Fishers’ book,does well in dividing the technology from the content, and in the form of a monograph, the division feels natural. Trying to absorb both the television show and the television technology would give anyone a headache, yet for the purpose of a time line, the division creates a lackluster product. Why? A time line should give the viewer a snapshot of what was going on at the time. Sure, there is an argument somewhere in a time line, such as what does one include in it. But, to me, the time line remains a fairly wide scoped method of viewing a history. Talking about the internet without mentioning the content of Youtube would be a gross oversight. So, what about television? The pop culture that evolved around the device is as significant, if not more so, than the device itself.

Now that I have had a few days to separate myself from the project I feel more comfortable to point out the potential flaws and consider revisions and at the end of the semester improvements for the time line. What might be most helpful now would be a survey that I can pass out to site visitors in order to find best avenues for improving the project.

Drum Talk

Next Thursday, the InfoAge Class will be presenting or discussing early forms of communication. I opted to do a practical application piece. Having read James Gleick’s chapter on the African Talking Drums, my curiosity piqued so badly that I found a little drum of my own. The troubling aspect of all this is, learning how to play in order to communicate is rather difficult and the amount of people who know how to play fairly few. The reality of all this is that I may need to drop the project and come to class with a piece of paper in my hand and tears on my cheek. Well, perhaps I am exaggerating, yet it still stands that given a limited time frame, I cannot get the device worked out quickly enough.

Let me just share a video of a master player at work: 

He has a great style, but I am wondering if the style of play and the art of communicating what Carrington described not grossly disconnected somehow. If this is so, how/why/when? The easy answer is the people playing no longer need talking drums to communicate over great distances of space. No one has altered the device. You still use your left arm to squeeze the cords around the drum in order to change its pitch, yet the people playing today are not the same as those playing it before them. That may seem like an obvious statement. However, consider the notion that the technology hasn’t changed. The context, which that technology used to exist in, has vanished. I talk as if that vanishing act is new, but Carrington notes in his slim text on talking drums, that even he noticed fewer boys learning how to play messages on the drums.

The drums present two learning issues. First, as an early form of communication, fewer people use or bother studying them. Perhaps language/drum enthusiasts go out of their way to learn it, but like technology such as the telegraph, knowledge of how to decipher the messages has fallen to the wayside. There is a sort of irony to advancing technologies. They feature pieces of older technology, yet those of us who know how to use the most update to date technology would be hard pressed to even deal with VHS or audio cassettes. What I am trying to get at is, early technology does not imply simple technology. One must not assume an early technology to be any easier to manipulate than the modern piece. We lack the context in which people used/developed the technology. We also have our brains reformatted and calibrated for certain types of machinery. So, the earlier pieces of tech require a shift in thought process, which truly is an art of patience.

Secondly, the talking drums themselves our linked to a language that I have no background in. Much like not knowing Morse code, even if I could operate the device, I would not understand the messages I am sending or receiving. Call it foreign technology if you will. I am a foreigner to the technology of talking drums in two ways, namely locality and temporal. There is a foreign language component. Talking drummers model their message after a base tonal language and must assume that the listener or recipient will do the same. Not having the foreign language base becomes a problem for the casual learner. You can mimick sounds, but without understanding meaning, you are only babbling and not speaking. I already noted temporal issues in the above paragraph. Looking at a different time makes you a sort of foreigner, even if that time is within your own location’s history. You are still disconnected and potentially unaware of certain contexts. Yes, early American English is still English. No, you still would have a whole lexicon of slang and idiomatic phrases that would mystify you, much like a foreigner with a beginning grasp of another country’s language. This foreignness stacks hurdles for me to leap over in this project. It is happening slowly but still happening.

In learning how to communicate with the Talking Drums, I am meeting up with individuals in Fredericksburg who know a thing or two, but the prospects of me communicating with the drum are looking grim. Who knows perhaps I will make a breakthrough soon? If nothing else, I can talk about the links between the drum and language.

Morning Musing on Madness


The Madness of technological development, is it brand new? At what specific moment did Chewbacca punch the Millenium Falcon into hyperspace? What if we have always been rapidly moving through technology? I’m sorry, did your mind just get blown? Well, don’t feel bad so did mine.

Brian Winston in his introduction to Media Technology and Society notes, “the storm of progress blows so hard as to obscure our vision of what is actually happening. What is hyperbolised as a revolutionary train of events can be seen as a far more evolutionary and less transforming process.” If anyone is ever interested in the development of communication and technology in the United States but perhaps do not have the time to read a full fledged book on the matter, let me suggest Gregory Downey’s short piece on the topic. The brevity of the book encapsulates the persistent whirlwind feel. Each chapter in Downey speaks to the historical moment as well as its social implication yet finishes with a bridge to today’s technology, a short musing.

In selecting Winston’s introduction and Downey’s short work, Dr. McClurken also prompted a question and offered a tentative answer. Winston questions the newness or revolutionary aspects to our information age when he notes that each technology was not born in a vacuum but rather had predecessors and early conceptual origins. The author makes a case for historical laws that mark the success or failure of certain technologies.

According to Winston, we somehow lose all sense of what occurred in the not so distant past with our technology (15). We all have collective amnesia that television stormed onto the scene and changed life or that radio became an essential technology, carrying all the same new ideas and problems as any other piece of technology. Both Winston and Downey demand a rethinking of the developments in technological history.

Are we existing in some new whirlwind of events that hurdles us ever faster to some new era of Information flow/overload? I am not so certain. I wonder where discussions this morning (Thursday, Sept 8 ) will take us. As a (let’s face it) experimental seminar, I am eager to see how our first class discussion goes. Thus far we have talked about brass tacks, which haven’t been fully hammered down just yet, and tools required for this semester. So, here’s where we start the actual water slide.

Get in the pool.

Photo by James Pichora!



Sources for today:

  • Brian Winston Media Technology and Society
  • Gregory J. Downey Technology and Communication in American History
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