The 19th century witnessed the transformation of electricity from a startling scientific discovery to an essential tool for modern life. In her book When Old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin describes how electricity engendered entirely new systems of communication. However, instead of focusing on the commercialism and mass production of popular technology, Marvin bases her narrative on the origin stories of electrical usage and illustrates how complex social issues had to be negotiated before the new practices could be incorporated into the existing discourses and become part of the common lexicon.
The seeds of dystopic science fiction can be found in Marvin’s account of the adoption process of electricity. To the engineers of the 19th century, electricity started out as “the transformative agent of social possibility” (63). In their grandiloquent rhetoric, electricity was imbued with miraculous, even divine, powers and they were the agents responsible for keeping this titanic force under control. Significantly, electricity’s biggest promise was the reorganization of social geography. Engineers conceived of a society where electric power would prove to be the ultimate equalizer, promoting feelings of universal brotherhood and harmony, nurtured by an eternal and accessible fountain of knowledge. Codes of propriety would be rewritten to include new rules of courtship, hospitality and social decorum, in keeping with the changes implemented by science and technology.
At the same time, this was the cause of severe social anxiety, as the new medium threatened to destroy the fragile boundaries of public and private life. For instance, electric gadgets such as the telephone appeared to be in the interests of preserving domesticity by filtering communication between the hill and the hearth. However, it also threatened to dissolve class barriers by allowing the hoi polloi direct telephonic access to the most exclusive ranks of society. The same technology that could be used for state surveillance and crime prevention could lead to severe transgressions if it fell into the wrong hands. The greatest threat of all was internal fragmentation, leading to civil unrest and the dominance of the machine. Many of these anxieties are visible in the popular fiction of the time—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, explicitly states the dominant fears of Mankind’s very own brainchild, given life through electricity, turning against its creator to unleash an unstoppable force of destruction.
It is interesting to note the lengths to which the scientific community was willing to go, to preserve the two conflicting notions of electrical power. On one hand, they had to harness mass adulation to make sure that their contributions did not disappear from the public imagination. On the other hand, they crafted an exclusive vocabulary in order to distinguish themselves from lay audiences and the annals of popular science. Marvin refers to this vocabulary as the ‘electrical textuality’ (12). It allowed the textual community to validate authoritative scientific texts and promote themselves as the only reliable interpreters. Lack of technological literacy marked subjects’ positions outside the dominant discourse and confirmed their alien status, which was further enhanced by the race, class, gender and lifestyle of the designated outsider.
Thus, although the scientific community tried to project itself as a radical alternative to religious orthodoxy and the outdated feudal class system, in many ways it simply regurgitated many of the elitist, dogmatic views of its predecessors. In the new anthropomorphic worldview, scientific experts were to be accorded the highest degrees of rank and privilege, because their knowledge was supposed to confer upon them an innate sense of honesty, integrity and good fellowship. Unfortunately, this did not prevent them from using hackneyed stereotypes of rural credulity and race as markers of the incompetence and social inferiority of the lay public.
Interestingly enough, Marvin also makes it clear that these self-proclaimed technical experts did not always control the way society reorganized itself around new media. She describes how the overwhelmingly masculine scientific community tried to endorse discourses of women’s electrical incapacity as an indication of the charming worldly ignorance of the virtuous woman. The frivolous chatter of women was considered a phenomenal waste of the power of the telephone, tolerated by their husbands with a grudging good humour that was blatantly patronizing. However, attempts to control female communication were repeatedly frustrated by the existence of a brand new social phenomenon—the female telephone operator.
They were a class of financially independent young women of uncertain reputation, whose “free-floating social identities” (29) made them a threat to social order. The dominant male discourse tried to exert their authority by pretending that women could only enter the technical world “at the sufferance of men” (27), and would remain in a state of vulnerability until they could be rescued and married. However, as Marvin’s anecdote about the girl who got her father arrested for threatening to “blow her brains out” (74) demonstrates, technical literacy did grant women room for deviance. Women began to attend matinee theatres unaccompanied by male escorts. They were willing to use information gleaned from their interactions with their clients for their own protection. Electronic communication even allowed them to defy the patriarchal restraints of traditional courtship.
According to Czitrom and Carey, the telegraph was the precursor to the idea of instantaneous flow of ideas over vast distances. Electrical transmission extended possibilities of communication to the limits of the human imagination, bringing the entire galaxy to the fingertips of the modern scientific man. From the secure comfort of his isolated suburban home, he could observe the workings of the cosmos at his leisure. Soon enough, this developed into xenophobia and cultural imperialism.
Marvin states emphatically that new media do not alter existing discourses in any fundamental way; instead “they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings” (5). This can be seen as an alternative reading of Marshall McLuhan’s prediction of modern society returning to its tribal roots. In many ways, the spectacle of electrical display clung to its antecedents of theatrical magic and stagecraft. For instance, Marvin describes how Nikola Tesla used an induction coil to pass hundreds of volts of electricity through his body, while flames flashed from his fingertips (137). Outrage and controversy are crucial to the maintenance of any new media and 19th century electricians, much like modern day advertising strategists, were aware of the power of the public spectacle.
At the same time, there was an attempt to protect the domestic space by ensuring that the alien presence of new media did not make users feel victimized. Electrical appliances were manufactured so as to fit unobtrusively into the home. Banal domestic tasks were mechanized by electrical appliances, allowing men to fantasize about complete isolation from the outside world. Empowered by their knowledge of new media and the dexterity with which they wielded it, the scientific community attempted to ‘civilize’ nature and bring it under the control of their superior intellect. They were convinced that their technology made them the cultural centre of the modern world and there was no attempt to integrate with other cultures or even to interact with them on an equal footing. The ‘global village’ of their collective imagination claimed to be connected to the rest of the world through their technical prowess, but in reality, it had all of the aloofness and distrust of the most hostile of tribal societies. The spirit of universal brotherhood that they propagated was unilaterally Anglo-Saxon, with middle-class values and prejudices.
Marvin defines media as the “constructed complexes of habits, beliefs and procedures embedded in cultural codes of communication” (8). Her interpretation of new media practices tries to map their influence on the changing power relations within society. At the heart of her argument lies the fact that the history of adoption practices of new media is essentially a study in the formation of discourses. In the 19th century, technical literacy became a form of epistemic violence that reinforced the positions of dominant speakers and dismissed the technically less competent as boorish and uncivilized. In the light of emerging trends in new media in the 21st century, it is interesting to revisit those claims and evaluate our own perceived notions of social and intellectual superiority.