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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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. 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.
 “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.