Volume 14, No. 1

Mercurial Matters

Memo: Book Reviews

New SHOT International Scholar

Campaign for SHOT

Information Technology Research Opportunities at NSF

In Search of the First Personal Computer

What Mercurians are Reading and Writing

Communication as Philosophy

That's As High As It Will Ever Get: Getting Into Orbit

I Want My MZTV!

Index to Articles 1988—2001

Contact Us

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Communication as Philosophy

A most provocative and evocative book, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 1999) is not your everyday history of communication book. In fact, the idea for Antenna’s upcoming recommendations column, announced above, struck me while trying to figure out if I could share my excitement about this book with you.

I read Speaking into the Air over a year ago, and it has remained with me ever since. Imagine reading that communication is “a registry of modern longings. The term evokes a utopia where nothing is misunderstood, hearts are open, and expression is uninhibited.” Thus, two terms invented in the nineteenth-century “reflect an individualist culture in which the walls surrounding the mind were a problem, whether blissfully thin (telepathy) or terrifyingly impermeable (solipsism).” (pp. 2, 5)

So what has this to do with technologies, you ask? Peters builds a haunting analysis to explore how the term “communication” evolved as technologies evolved. He argues that “technologies such as the telegraph and radio refitted the old term ‘communication,’ once used for any kind of physical transfer or transmission, into a new kind of quasi-physical connection across the obstacles of time and space.” We all know well the excitement about annihilating time and space that every new communication and transportation technology has fueled. Peters plumbs human anxieties and desires about exchanging our thoughts with each other, from Socrates to the Internet. So, as we have gained access to more and faster techniques for communicating, we have attributed relationship problems increasingly to failures to communicate. Or, as he puts it, we see them as “problems of proper tuning or noise reduction.” (p. 5)

Exploring another core understanding for historians of technology, Peters argues that broadcasting in and of itself is not an enemy of democratic communication. “Media can sustain diverse formal arrangement. It is a mistake to equate technologies with their societal applications. ... The lack of dialogue owes less to broadcasting technologies than to interests that profit from constituting audiences as observers rather than participants” (p. 34).

Peters weaves a tapestry of technology history with theories of the mind and society that can carry you like a magic carpet to both new insights and new frustrations.

Pamela W. Laird