Three writers who focus on the use and rhetoric of media, rather than on their inherent characteristics or their ethical valences, come together here. Wendy H. K. Chun demands that our attention to the social contexts of emergent technologies center on the political matters of force and sovereignty. Lisa Nakamura draws our attention to myriad, and structural, irruptions of old inequalities as manifested in ostensibly transcendent new media. And Lisa Gitelman pointedly reminds us, through a meticulous and engaging historiography, that what we call ‘new’ in media has older histories than we often care to admit, that all media were new once, and that any divergent practice or technology enters a complex set of other, perhaps related, media, in which nothing can be outgrown, only deprecated. Together, these thinkers provide good scholarship on which further research can be modelled, and provocative questions that demand further thought.
The focus in Wendy Chun’s Control and Freedom , technologies of visual recording and especially surveillance, unpacks a paradox. The same technologies that liberate our individual capabilities inhibit and overdetermine our social liberties. Bounded by class and social status, technological development does not escape – and often exacerbates – inequalities and injustices in human world. Likewise, she argues, our desires for and about cyberspace manifest themselves through race, gender, and sexuality. Chun’s attention to cultural objects such as art and literature, however, strike discordant in the context of such questions – at least, to these ears. This is not to fault her basic approach, but to reflect that my own expectations for such claims would seek out infrastructural, technologically founded evidence for technological, structural claims. The strength of Chun’s arguments, however, are to show where those types of issues bleed into — and react against — the very ephemera on which she concentrates here. On that front, her work continues to prove useful and relevant to contemporary internet research.
Lisa Nakamura’s breakout study, Digitizing Race, takes up the tools of visual culture studies – so often a staidly nineteenth-century undertaking – to provide a refreshing, honest and penetrating exposure of latent and systemic racisms and sexisms in and on the internet. As in Chun’s observations, the exacerbation of existing human conditions appears to accompany the rhetoric of transcendence – or at least amelioration – of those conditions. And Nakamura goes on to emphasize the proliferating consequences of even tiny decisions of design and architecture. In her detailed explication, text and cursor, directory structure and browser layer, all combine to maintain the invisibility of raced and gendered subjects online. It should, perhaps, be added that an ongoing under-representation of non-whites, online and in the development of internet layers (barring, perhaps, young Asian and Jewish men), along with gender gaps that mirror existing digital divides, adds to the problems faced by some of those most affected by Nakamura’s critiqued issues. Her analysis of the literal dis/appearance of race and gender online leads us to other questions, such as where data centers are placed in relation to other industry, or to residences. The jobs available to the least socially privileged continue to follow the patterns that she has identified. In this way, her meticulous genealogy puts embodied knowledge into play against a discourse of disembodied, idealized life that so often permeates digital scholarship.
With a scholarly narrative that takes place on a different historical scale, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New also breaks from the other two works here in its methodology. Rather than articulate the knowledge of hidden subjects against a more conventional, heirarchical, privileged knowledge, Gitelman concentrates on a methodologically rigorous media archaeology. Her central claim — that new media – or any recording technologies – are never so new as they seem, and that simultaneously they all claim to provide constant newness, strikes to the heart of how new media operate conceptually. Meanwhile, she takes a longer view historically than most studies of digital media, reaching back over a century to glean insight from the statements of technicians, inventors, marketers, and users alike. Since she focuses on technics and structures more than on media’s subjective effects or users, Gitelman’s argument forms a strong basis on which to model other studies, such as this one. The places where contemporary research might reach beyond her conclusions — such as in search of unique significance to more recent emergences in technology, or the political valence of technical crises — do not diminish her contribution to a continuing critique of media’s hysterical claims to our attention.
Together, these thinkers have demystified some key conundrums in modern media and technology. Their critiques of class, race, and gender iniquities as motivating factors for the development of supposedly liberal or liberatory innovations unpacks a central paradox of the internet: its ongoing structural centralization in the hands of a very few technically elite people, mostly middle- to upper-class white men. Their collective attention to the significance of minor details in the design, production, dissemination, and consumption of digital media should inspire other researchers to hone our focus as well. Finally, the deeply historically grounded approach undertaken by each of these scholars ought not to be lost on those seeking to follow in their paths. Just as categories of subjectivity are not erased online, temporality persists there too, albeit in unique and sometimes troubling ways.