Representation: Before the Internet
The effects of the internet on physical mail have been profound, as has become apparent in the news again recently, but just about every aspect of life is different now that we have an interconnected, multimedia communication platform. During a pandemic, online telehealth visits and video social hours have become common, adding onto a trend where we already saw streaming entertainment, food order and delivery, and dating migrate to websites and apps. To set the stage for understanding the cultural shifts that have taken place through the internet, this introductory assignment asks you to consider what life was like before the web. For people of my generation who grew up in a time before widespread adoption, imagining how we communicated, socialized, bought and sold goods, navigated through the world, and consulted physical books to understand the past is a matter of personal memory. For people of your generation, it is likely to be a matter of social memory, largely stored on the web. But that’s the thing: at least to start off with, I want you to imagine what life was like before the internet without using the internet. Consider it an effort in creative reverse engineering, as well as creative storytelling. For an hour maybe, unplug from the internet as best you can and think about the things you no longer have access to, such as social networks, a vast repository of stored information, on-demand services at your fingertips, and the constant pingings of notifications. Consider writing on paper, by hand. Focus in on one activity or service and devise a cultural system, maybe not needing electricity or data transmission, that could fulfill the same cultural function. This is meant to be creative and exploratory, so if you find yourself writing about the past in a way similar to how science fiction authors have imagined the future, you’re on the right track. Topics might include how people shopped and compared prices before the internet, how they banked and invested, what types of entertainment they enjoyed, how they conducted research, what it looked like to travel, and how people met and dated before the internet (check out this podcast on dating in the days when bicycles were new).
Circuit of Culture
Before you get started, you’ll want to read this short text on the “Circuit of Culture,” which will be the frame for all of the assignments this semester. Once you have your activity or service in mind, focus in on the dimension of representation associated with it: what did the internet represent for people involved in your activity or service? Put another way, how did they represent the internet to themselves? What cultural values did the internet promise and what threats did it pose? How did people make sense of the internet? What immediate changes would it have posed to their lives? How did they deal with it and make it meaningful by discussing or writing about it? Remember that representation can occur in spoken language, text, image, and sound, and in any of the media that combine these.
Consider as an example the above podcast on the bicycle and telegraph. The bicycle and the telegraph represented for people new kinds of freedom, new ways of making contact with each other. Their novelty was proclaimed in newspapers and magazines, and each changed the business of news and culture. The bicycle changed transportation, and the telegraph changed communication (really, each changed transportation and communication if we consider their cascading effects). The bicycle made it possible for people to explore greater distances in the city, while the telegraph connected people anonymously over distances like never before. They represented technological novelty and a break with the ways of the past. They opened up new jobs, such bicycle couriers and telegraph operators, and cut into the market of other jobs. For instance, the bicycle reduced reliance on horses as agents of transportation, and the telegraph took over the work once accomplished by the Pony Express, and in this sense, both technologies represented some early warning signs for the cultural demise of horses and horse drivers, which would be completed with the automobile. All services and technologies change relations in this way, representing new opportunity for some and misfortune for others. Inevitably, the service you choose will have been transformed or obsolesced by the internet. Thinking about its relationships with other technologies and systems can help you creatively think through what it represented for people: what meanings it carried, what language was used to describe it, and what cultural tone was associated with it. So there you have it: how did people get things done before the internet? Have fun, and good luck!
- What did services like Airbnb represent for customers and employees connected to the hotel and hospitality industries?
- What did apps like Spotify represent for people who made, listened to, bought, and sold music?
- What did websites like Zillow represent for homebuyers and real estate agents?
- What did platforms like Blackboard represent for students and professors?
- What did online news represent for writers, readers, deliverers, etc., of newspapers?
All assignments should be submitted as text documents on Blackboard and to the blog on the course site. For further instructions on posting to the blog, check out this explainer.
Due Friday, September 10 by 5:00 p.m. EST.