The Victorian new media demo as a performance genre

As I’ve been finishing off the manuscript for my book The Shakespearean Archive: Experiments in New Media from the Renaissance to Postmodernity, I’ve been realizing that a spin-off project could explore the new media demo as an emergent performance genre with a cultural history of its own. This should be a familiar genre thanks in part to Steve Jobs’s sense of theatricality in his Apple rollout presentations, which serve as a kind of technology theatre. Another famous tech demo from the era of modern computing is Douglas Englebart’s so-called “Mother of All Demos,” which gave the world its first look at now-commonplace features like a windowed GUI, a computer mouse and pointer, word processing, hypertext, real-time collaborative document editing (think GoogleDocs), and teleconferencing — and this was in 1968 (!!). (There’s plenty of surviving video of this particular demo, which is worth a look.) Considering this kind of event as a cultural and social phenomenon — and as a performance susceptible to critical interpretation — is something I often do with my students, and someday I’d like to teach a course on the cultural history of the tech demo at U Toronto’s iSchool.

Electric pen sample text with opening lines of Richard the Third and a standard business letter

Detail of a page from one of Edison’s notebooks showing sample text generated by the electric pen prototype, as discussed in Lisa Gitelman’s book Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines (Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 161-2. Click to see the full original at the Thomas A. Edison Papers project.

Any course, book project, or other consideration of the genre of the tech demo would need to give serious attention to Englebart’s and Jobs’s antecedents in the nineteenth century. It’s probably not a stretch to call the period from roughly 1870 to 1920 the great age of the new media demo, when inventors, journalists, and audiences alike refined their shared sense of these events as participatory texts, with operative generic conventions just like any other kind of performance such as a stage play, opera, or carnival attraction. There has already been some excellent work by researchers such as Jonathan Sterne and John Picker on the emergence of new media into the cultural imagination, but Lisa Gitelman’s work probably goes furthest in considering tech demos as performances in the context of the Edison phonograph. My book covers different territory, with a chapter on the use of Shakespeare in demos of sound technologies (especially Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; see image), which is where I’ll draw most of my examples for this post.

(Here I should mention a few excellent resources for this kind of research: the online Thomas A. Edison Papers project at Rutgers, and the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers collection at the Library of Congress. FirstSounds.org collects some very cool material, too.)

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the telephone in Salem, Mass., as depicted in the New York Daily Graphic (6 March 1877)

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the telephone in Salem, Mass., as depicted in the New York Daily Graphic (6 March 1877)

One challenge in this kind of inquiry, however, is not to get carried away by the celebratory tone of the demos themselves, which often include a history-telling component of their own that places their particular invention at the end of a clearly defined progress narrative. Jobs did exactly that in the first iPad rollout, as you may recall. To take a nineteenth-century example, when Bell took his telephone on tour through 1877-1878, demonstrating it to audiences in music halls and theatres, he usually framed the demos as lectures on the history and scientific principles of telephony. Journalists covering these events usually found the lectures less interesting than the actual technology demos, which involved live participation by people at the other end of the telephone line who would read newspaper extracts, discuss local weather, sing songs, play musical instruments, and sometimes exchange recognizable literary references (including quotations from Shakespeare). Herein lies the need to read these demos critically: claims for the appeal of new media usually rest on their ability to represent nearly anything, but it matters when technologists use literature and other cultural texts to test, demonstrate, and authenticate new media prototypes. A confident assertion of content-neutrality often underpins progress-driven histories of technology, in which materials like literary texts become passive content to be remediated by the active agents in the equation, the new media themselves.

Another illustration from the New York Daily Graphic's story on Bell's Salem, Mass., telephone demo ()

Another illustration from the New York Daily Graphic’s story on Bell’s Salem, Mass., telephone demo (6 March 1877)

My interest, however, is in how cultural materials push back, mutually shaping the media (and the avatars of those media) which seek to appropriate them into technological progress narratives. For example, accounts of the development of sound technologies often describe scenes of the inventors straining to make out messages amid silence or noise. With the telephone, those test messages often amounted to ordinary speech acts, such as “Do you understand what I say?” or the famous first telephonic transmission, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you,” sent by Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson in the telephone’s first expression of bodily absence and desire. An example of this kind of prototypical telephonic exchange is recounted as an exhibit in an 1880 telephone patent case, in an exchange that occurred during prototyping in October, 1876, according to Bell’s lab notes[1]:

transcription: BELL TO WATSON.—If you understand what I say, say something to me. WATSON TO BELL.—It is (decidedly) the best I ever saw. BELL TO WATSON.—It is the best I ever heard. WATSON TO BELL.—Success at last has (attended) our efforts. BELL TO WATSON.— “Let us then be up and doing, 	With a heart for any fate. Still untiring, still pursuing, 	Learn to labor and to wait.”

Bell caps off the telephonic test with poetry, in this case the final stanza from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” In moments like this a stanza of poetry becomes ontologically layered. In one sense, the stanza’s status as a shared cultural reference serves to naturalize its utterance as a speech act, despite its seeming incongruousness in this scientific test (and, later, legal testimony). In a different sense, poetry becomes just another sequence of sound waves to be converted into electrical signals and back again, transmitted through an information system utterly indifferent to content. (A definition which, notably, works only when the humans are not considered parts of the information system.) In yet another sense, this transmitted poem remains very much a poem in the typographical form it takes in the court testimony, in which the transcriber of Bell’s notebook has made sure to reproduce bibliographic codes such as lineation, indentation, and capitalization. Typographic intervention into the representation of sound is also visible in the italicized “I” in Bell’s correction of Watson, where Bell emphasizes hearing over seeing.

One of Bell’s most important telephone demos was reported in the London Times of January 16, 1878 as a private performance for Queen Victoria and members of her household given at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on two days prior, with a telephonic connection to nearby Osborne Cottage, the home of the Queen’s private secretary.[2]

Queen Victoria waiting for the next available customer service agent during Bell's telephone demo at Osborne House, 1878. Click to see the full image at the British Library website.

Queen Victoria waiting for the next available customer service agent during Bell’s telephone demo at Osborne House, 1878. Click to see the full image at the British Library website.

The demo included a performance by the American journalist and actor Kate Field, who happened to be making a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon a few months prior, and was subsequently recruited by Bell to help promote the telephone in England. Field sang songs including “Kathleen Mavourneen” and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” as well as an Irish folk song not mentioned in the London Times story, which her biographer Gary Scharnhorst believes was motivated by Field’s Irish Republican sympathies.[3] Shakespearean material played a large role in the form of the “Cuckoo Song” from Love’s Labour’s Lost and Rosalind’s Epilogue from As You Like It. Rosalind’s repeated reference to gender and embodiment in the Epilogue (“If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not” [5.4.212–5]) would certainly have called attention to the disembodiment of Field’s performing voice. The power dynamics would also have been fascinating to observe, given that an independent American actress was speaking in the voice of Shakespeare’s strongest heroine, asking the audience’s sanction for the performance that went before. Rosalind conjures that response from a divided audience, speaking first to the women and then to the men, herself (and himself, on the early modern stage) a palimpsest of genders and identities by the end of the play. The telephone’s ostensible power was to overcome distance, but the telephone also served to make strange the subjectivities involved in performing and listening.

As I mentioned, my book limits its scope to the use of Shakespeare in new media demos (which, surprisingly enough, has unearthed a fair amount of examples) but one could follow this thread forward and backward from the nineteenth century. Researchers in science and technology studies (STS) have considered the iconography of science that took shape in demos of technologies such as Robert Boyle’s air pump and representations such as Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump (which was itself remediated in another tech demo of sorts in the James Bond film Skyfall, in which Q briefs bond in the National Gallery with Wright’s painting behind them).

I would be curious to hear what others think about the idea of the new media demo as a genre, and what we might learn from exploring its heyday in the nineteenth century.


[1] Telephone Suits: Circuit Court of the United States, District of Massachusetts, In Equity: Bell Telephone Company et al. v. Peter A. Dowd (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1880), part II, p. 84, italics in original. I am unable to tell what the italics and parentheses mean in this transcript; they could indicate notes on delivery, or the transcriber’s interpolations, or one of each.

[2]
“The Telephone at Court,” London Times (January 16, 1878). See also Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: the Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist (Syracuse University Press, 2008), pp. 125–30. John M. Picker describes a more elaborate program for the event, including a long-distance connection to an orchestra; see Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 101, 103.
[3] Scharnhorst, p. 128. Kate Field is a fascinating figure in nineteenth-century media history; for more on her, see Scharnhorst and Picker, as well as the discussion in our fellow-blogger Jennifer Esmail’s book Reading Victorian Deafness (Ohio University Press, 2013), where you can find a fascinating reading of Field’s discussion of Charles Dickens’s public readings.
About these ads

5 thoughts on “The Victorian new media demo as a performance genre

  1. Great post, Alan! This is fascinating work. You raise a great point about the value of skepticism when considering the celebratory rhetoric around new technologies in historical materials. If only there were tech bloggers in the 19th century who could give us the real scoop…

    • Thanks, Jen! One thing I learned from looking through Bell archival material at the LOC was that there were, in effect, tech bloggers in the nineteenth century given the volume, depth, and immediacy of coverage in newspapers and other periodicals like the Daily Graphic and Scientific American — both of which, like blogs, depend on visual storytelling as well.

      Btw, I just updated the post to reference your discussion of Kate Field in Reading Victorian Deafness. She’s a great example of the Victorian new media impresario, and she clearly had great insight into the material she wrote about and promoted.

  2. Thanks for this, Alan. Really interesting stuff. It makes me wonder about the role of the demo as an *event* that disciplines the tech. You point out that “cultural materials push back” in ways that have palpable influence on the producers and consumers of new media, and obviously the reverse is also true: that consumers and producers define the uses of the tech. I’m thinking immediately about the early history of the phonograph. Edison’s promotional essay, “The Phonograph and its Future” (1878) predicts “possibilities so illimitable and probabilities so numerous” for future applications of his invention — a chaos which he blamed for its lack of uptake so far. By the mid 1890s, according to Gitelman, Edison and his competitors were aggressively re-branding the phonograph as a “read-only amusement device.” My question is, what exactly does the demo do? Does it habituate as it promotes? Does it foreclose applications when the creators or their authorized agents show us the “right” way to use it? I know that in terms of the content on these machines, that was thought by many to be the case. Tennyson’s and Browning’s recordings of their poems on phonographic cylinders were considered invaluable for their fidelity, archiving the definitive “reading” of the text. However Yopie Prins published a piece in Victorian Poetry some years back that criticizes this “phonographic fallacy.” Might there be a “demo fallacy” as well?

  3. Alan, I love this idea for a detailed history of the demo in Victorian culture. It reminds me of another celebrated demo in the 1840s by Joseph Faber, who unveiled his talking euphonia to much curiosity by viewers and the press. I’m writing a section of my book project on Victorian disfluencies about Faber’s desire to manufacture a speaking machine that would reproduce “perfect” mechanical reproductions of the human voice. Faber’s work is similar to Alexander Melville Bell’s work in elocution, in that both seem interested in a purely physiological or mechanical understanding of how the human speech organs function. Such arguments about the mechanical theory of speech development would be incredibly problematic for Victorian stutterers, who followed such systems of “cure” as the Bell system without success.

    Here’s a link to a blog that contains a good introduction to Faber’s talking machine: http://irrationalgeographic.wordpress.com/2009/06/24/joseph-fabers-talking-euphonia/

  4. Pingback: Wondering at Then-New Media | The Floating Academy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s