“Old” and “new” media

The next session of our seminar (April 16th) will examine how the idea of novelty influences the cultural reception of media technology, and how the emergence of “new” technologies stimulates reactions of fear as well as enthusiasm. The text chosen to address this topic is the introduction to a collection of essays titled Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Please download it through the ILIAS system of the University of Cologne and be prepared to discuss it in class.

Beside reading this text, however, it is useful to discuss briefly what the contrasting ideas of “old” and “new” mean in the history and in the present of media communications.

Today, we usually regard as “new media” those technologies that are connected to the so-called digital revolution, such as personal computers, internet, smart phones, tablets, e-readers, and so on. However, technologies that we now consider “old,” such as radio, television, or the telephone, were also regarded as a novelty when they were first introduced. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, cinema and wireless telegraphy were new media. In this sense, we should realize that the ideas of “new” and “old” are first and foremost cultural and historical constructions.

Take, for instance, the case of television. When it was initially introduced in Germany, at the beginning of the 1950s, it was heralded by the public and by newspapers as something radically new, a symbol of progress and modernity. However, while the possibility to broadcast both images and sounds was indeed new, less attention was given to the fact that the television reproduced forms and techniques that had been developed by older media. Most of the early TV shows, for instance, replicated quite exactly the genres that had been broadcasted through the radio in the previous decades, or were based on older forms of live entertainment, such as the theater act or the variety show.

In media studies, one of the first authors to realize the importance of the concept of novelty in the history of media is Carolyn Marvin, who wrote in 1990 a book titled When Old Technologies Were New, which examined the introduction of electrical technologies such as the telephone at the end of the nineteenth century. This book is available at our University Library.

If you want to discover something more about the way “new” and “old” media are categorized today, try to google the words new old media.

I look forward to discussing this topic and the text posted on ILIAS with you in class. Please post comments below if you have any questions or comments.


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