Chapter 3: The History of New Media

Chapter Outline

  • Set media in its historical context, drawing connections between current network technologies, convergence trends, and prior inventions such as the telegraph, radio, and television
  • Ability to send messages without moving physical objects; immediacy factor
  • Journalism politics, and businesses were all transformed by the use of the telegraph and the telephone
  • Radio and television were testing grounds

Early Traces of New Media

  • Advanced in new media have their roots in technologies that predate the Internet by at least 50 if not 100, years
  • Pioneers of new media build on foundations laid long before, in unexpected places

Institutionalized, Instantaneous, Worldwide Communication: The Telegraph

  • One of the challenges of human communication has always been that to send a message any further than you can see, you have to send some sort of physical object to carry the message. Most settled to writing letters and sending them by post. Ex: towers, balloons, or smoke signals
  • Towers with semaphores or signalling apparatuses took hours for a message to go long distance
  • In the 1800s, with a better understanding of the properties of electricity, attention was turned to the potential of wires to send messages

Morse Code

  • Morse brought the telegraph into popular use; a coding system with digital and formed dots and dashes
  • Morse code represented the alphabet, the digital coding scheme to break a message down into smaller components
  • The system of dots and dashes at one end of the telegraph line corresponds to the long and short pulses of electricity that triggered a buzzer; antecedent to contemporary binary system (dots as os and dashes as is)
  • Morse code was a practical method of sending information since it was simple, reliable, and easy to implement. It established an approach to the digitization of information that has persisted into the present day


  • Telegraphs resulted in the overlay of a network of wires and cables on land and under sea
  • The telegraph provided a new and relatively immediate level of connectivity, global communication
  • Global communication did not come easily, especially across oceans
  • If the telegraph had the effect of making worldwide instantaneous communication seem normal, it also set the tone for the kinds of businesses that would later be built to run communication networks and for the regulations that governments would impose on them
  • The telegraph prompted cooperation and collaboration among global institutions for technical standards and payment transfers that were necessary to ensure that a message could pass seamlessly from one network to another, and that all parties would be reimbursed for carrying it
  • The telegraph brought attitudes, awareness, and an appreciation of immediacy to the general population but behind the scenes, it also fostered key enabling technologies, institutional configurations, regulatory schemes, and business models that would be foundational for future new media products and services
  • Example - Telegraphs pioneered input devices, storage devices, and underlying technological methods such as “multiplexing” (sending more than one message at a time to make the most of the limited amount of capacity available on wires)
  • Telegraph companies grew into large monopolies that attracted regulation and configured themselves as cooperative networks, sharing revenues and carrying each other’s traffic
  • Served as a technological and business achievement and a pivotal technology in terms of its ability to overcome the limitation of moving information by moving things
  • Innis explains that bridging this gap inevitably had its costs in terms of how people used the media. Specifically, the content of new “space-binding” media forms such as the telegraph were biased toward more ephemeral topics

The Telegraph as Scanner

  • The process of encoding information - in effect digitizing it-allowed for the movement of complex ideas using simple “on-and-off” electrical impulses. However, this was limited to text, not pictures
  • Telegraphs (scanning) eventually adapted to send photographs with a light-sensitive sensor scan for light and dark parts of a picture. The white area would be a dot and a dark area would be dash.
  • Computer scanners, digital cameras, camcorders works with images and uses a similar system of breaking a picture into “bits” (binary digits) of black and white to encode media for transmission on networks and for further processing by software

Telegraphs as Storage and Pricing Pioneers

  • The torrent of telegraph messages meant that the system could become overwhelmed and messages lost
  • Telegraph operators worked out a system of “punching” - using a small device to create holes in a paper tape to represent the code and then running those tapes through another machine that read those holes and generated Morse code. This allowed the company to send the telegram later, when the system was less busy. Massages received en masse and distributed to home and businesses
  • This balanced the load on the system and increase overall capacity
  • Given the ability to store and forward messages, they were able to offer pricing options based on how quickly a message needed to be delivered

Telegraphs as Network Pioneers

  • The Western Union brought all the telegraph companies and illustrated the value of networks, now known as Metcalfe’s Law
  • Metcalfe’s “law” is more of an observation, describing the increasing value of a network according to the number of connections it has “the value of a network increases at the square of the number of connections”
  • If there are two networks, both with 50 nodes and thus 50 or 2450 connections each, if they were joined then there would suddenly be 9900 possible connections, simply by putting a link between the two networks
  • One link almost quadruples the value of two networks
  • Some people end up getting a telephone, or signing up for e-mail because
  • The value of the network grows enormously as more and more people join
  • Not being part of the network means not have access to something that is increasingly valuable

The foundation of his eponymous law is the observation that in a communications network with n members, each can make connections with other participants. If all those connections are equally valuable - and this is the big if as far as we are concerned - the total value of the network is proportional to, that is, roughly. So if, for example, a network has 10 members, there are 90 different possible connections that one member can make to another. If the network doubles in size, to 20, the number of connections doesn’t merely double, to 180, it grows to 380 - it roughly quadruples, in other words.

The Telegraph and Early Signs of Communications Media Monopolies

  • The telegraph carried the risk that these newly consolidated companies would start to behave as monopolies and raise prices beyond what the market would bear
  • As the telegram became integrated into business and social life, pressure was put on the governments to regulate the operations of telegraph companies
  • The telegraph spread rapidly and became dominated by large monopolies (railways, wires and poles)
  • Their importance for other businesses and their monopoly practices eventually led to calls for regulation
  • News services were the principal users of the telegraph and paid much for telegraph traffic
  • Western Union lobbyists fend off almost any serious control of their industry despite bills from congress
  • “Net neutrality” remarks the role of lobbying by the telecommunication industry

The Telegraph and Newspapers - Dire End or Happy Marriage?

  • Home and mobile access to the Web has converted people to online reading; newspapers decline in print readership and advertising
  • Newspaper industry accused Google and Internet search engines
  • The telegraph implicated in the “death of newspapers”
  • Prior to the 1800s, newspapers operated on a casual sharing of old news, with relatively little attention to timeliness
  • Some newspapers sought to distinguish themselves by being “first with the news”, included semaphores, carrier pigeons, and rowed ships arriving to Europe and raced back to the port
  • The arrival of the telegraph seemed to make competing on the basis of being first with the facts a losing proposition, as newspaper operators, business people, and just about anyone would have access to the news at the same time
  • The telegraph had the “last mile” problem where the news would arrive by telegraph to offices across the globe but would not get from those offices to thousands of people at once
  • Newspapers became outlets for a steady stream of wire clippings

America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human experience (Stillman)

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate (Thoreau)

  • The comments recall Innis’s observation of the bias of communication toward the ephemeral in space-binding media such as the telegraph
  • Changes in journalistic writing style; the market and technology led to newspaper content with: dependence on facts and (the appearance, at least) of a neutral point of view
  • Telegraph’s ability to transmit news instantly: politicians were held more accountable
  • The “control at a distanced” affected politicians, introduced-or sped up- the use of data for the trading of commodities, the movement of goods, and the pricing of products
  • Railways operate lines efficiency by optimizing timing and speed; sippers deliver goods to market where demand was highest, bosses control the work of their labourers from vast distances
  • Ability to control things to a finer degree and from a remote location resulted in a diminution in the degree to which people had control over their activities; fewer decisions were made locally, fewer breaks and gaps, information sent and less waiting until answers were received
  • Control and feedback system- sensors and computers split-second decisions- Weiner called “cybernetic” system
  • Illustrated importance of maintaining an ethical stance toward research outcomes
  • Cybernetic systems are integrated in daily lives, complete with embedded knowledge and decision-making power that is startlingly “human-like,” will come to conform electronic networks
  • Newspapers thrived under the telegraph and adapted to take advantage of the features that it offered, including ready access to foreign news, easy sharing of stores via telegraph-connected new agencies, and the wire photo

What lessons does the telegraph hold or newspapers now grappling with the internet? The telegraph was first seen as a threat to papers, but was then co-opted and turned into their advantage. “The telegraph helped contribute to the emergence of the modern newspaper,” says Ford Risley, head of the journalism department at Penn State University. “People began to expect the latest news, and a newspaper could not succeed if it was not timely.”

  • The proliferation of hand-held reading devices lead to changes in how we experience newspapers and magazines
  • Technologies end of newspapers and magazines vs content is important to democracy, social and political impact remains
  • Defining geature of new media is how it has turned to commercial ends, advertising
  • Telegraph implicated in the development of the advertising industry
  • Insertion of advertising copy in multiple newspapers-and all the billing and coordination that entailed- made it possible for agencies to use telegraph to move into this “coordination business” by becoming adept at buying and then reselling blocks of space

It revolutionized marketing. The telegraph followed on the heels of the European industrial revolution, and in North America, manufacturing had mechanized and expanded. Rural families had gravitated to cities to work in the fast- growing factories, which in turn churned out products for burgeoning urban populations with the rise of railways through the nineteenth century, goods could be transported over land, en masse, to distant markets, resulting in more product choices in stores. And how did the telegraph fit into the picture? It allowed manufacturers to communicate instantly with newspapers in distant cities and towns, buying advertisements to attract thousands of potential new customers.

Barely a year after Morse dotted, dashed, and dotted his way his way into history, Philadelphia businessman Volney Palmer opined, quite rightly, that many manufacturers had neither the time nor the inclination to place ads in dozens-even hundreds- of newspapers on a regular basis. Palmer offered his services in several newspapers and parceling and selling it to businesses, who would have to create their own messages. And so… the advertising agency was born

  • Telegraph contributed to the innovation in long- distance, instantaneous communication, technology, business and regulatory changes

From Telegraph to Telephone - A Revolution in Sound

  • No system for telegraph terminals: telegraph office write down message and send through wire
  • Morse code had to be learned and remained out of reach
  • Encoding out of the equation makes transmitting messages useful
  • Bell sending voice across wire
  • The telephone gave people the ability to speak directly to others, with their own voices, without reducing everything to code; workplace and household
  • Telephone companies ran promotions urging people to reserve phones for emergency or important use
  • Testament to collective human curiosity shared interest in communication technology, overuse of new communication media is a rising problem
  • AT&T struggled to keep up with iPhone mobile data usage
  • Twitter’s Fail Whale became emblematic of a new media form that was expanding too quality for those running the service
  • Telephone was a new tool and people had to learn to use it properly
  • Most new communication technologies not only have an adoption curve (in which people acquire the devices) but a learning curve (people learn to use the devices properly)
  • The process of connecting everyone- a manual process in the early days- began to put a strain on the system’s resources. There were not enough telephone operators to handle the volume and an automated means had to be found. The answer was the mechanical telephone switch, replaced local and long distance operators

Changing Telephone Connections - The Telephone Switch and “Network Neutrality”

  • The telephone switch or telephone exchange saved labour and gave users the freedom to make calls without involving other people
  • The mechanical telephone switch was supposedly motivated by the inventor’s suspicions that an industry rival’s girlfriend was diverting business to her sweetheart
  • At the time of the invention of the automated telephone, people were acquainted with the postal system approach: those doing the mailing put addresses on letters and did not concern with how it got to the destination
  • The mechanical telephone switch network neutrality a reality
  • Network neutrality is used for Internet technologies, in the early days of the telephone, a similar principle applied; common carriage law, reference to the regulation of railroads (kept from changing companies0
  • In telephone terms, the common carriage laws meant that everyone paid according to a common fee/ change in structure and telephone companies could not discriminate on the basis of what callers were saying
  • This separated carriage from content and it remains a cornerstone of telecommunications law to this day
  • Common carriage law protected the telephone companies, too, since they could and argue that they could not be held responsible if someone sued to telephone to clan a crime, for example

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