News and Announcements

Bonea wins inaugural Mercurians Prize

The Mercurians Special Interest Group of SHOT is pleased to announce
the inaugural winner of the Mercurians Prize: Amelia Bonea, for
“‘Contagion by Telephone’: Print Media and Knowledge about Infectious
Diseases in Britain, 1880s–1914,”
Technology and Culture 62, 4,
(October 2021), 1063-1086.

The US$1,000 prize is for a peer-reviewed paper in the history of
communication technologies published in 2020-21 and focused on a
period at least 25 years before publication. The prize committee
lauded Bonea for her well-researched and innovative article. In
addition to linking several strands of research in the histories of
technology and communications, Bonea also drew effectively on the
history of medicine’s literature. The parallel issues that have arisen
with understanding COVID-19’s transmissibility made her article even
more timely.

Amelia Bonea

The committee also recognizes, with honorable mentions, Gloria Calhoun for “Why Wire Mattered: Building U.S. Networked Infrastructures, 1845–1910,” Technology and Culture 62, 1 (January 2021), 156–84; and Kirsten Paige for “Tectonic Microphonics,” 19th-Century Music, 45, 1 (2021), 65–78.

Our thanks to Jonathan Coopersmith, Mara Mills, and Valerie Schafer for their service on the first Mercurians Prize committee!

New OA book: What Was Artificial Intelligence?

Dave Park, Lake Forest College (IL) is a scholar-led, nonprofit, no-fee, open access publisher in the media, film, and communication studies fields. We are excited to announce the publication of our latest book, Sue Curry Jansen’s What Was Artificial Intelligence?

When it was originally published in 2002, Jansen’s long essay, “What Was Artificial Intelligence?” attracted little notice. It was published as a chapter in her book Critical Communication Theory, whose wisdom and erudition failed to register across the many fields it addressed. One explanation for the neglect, ironic and telling, is that Jansen’s sheer scope as an intellectual had few competent readers in the communication studies discipline into which she published the book. “What Was Artificial Intelligence?” was buried treasure. In this edition, Jansen’s prescient autopsy of AI self-selling—the rhetoric of the masculinist sublime—is reprinted with a new introduction. Now an open access book, What Was Artificial Intelligence? is a message in a bottle, addressed to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the latest generation of AI myth-makers.

The book is available online, and as a free download in PDF, ePub, and Mobi. It is also available as a $5 paperback.

What Was Artificial Intelligence? appears in the Media Manifold series. Scholars interested in proposing volumes in this or other series are encouraged to reach out with a query.

New Perspectives on Telephone Network Switching

Brown Bag Tag Team Talk, 10 March 2022

Following the successful initiation of our informal, “brown bag,” scholarly Zoom talks last year, we are continuing with a unique “tag team” format for our first presentation in 2022. On Thursday, 10 March, at 1200 EST, Sebastian Giessmann and Mara Mills will share the fruits of their recent archival research to offer new perspectives on a century of telephone network switching. Bring your lunch, breakfast, or dinner to the virtual table, and please share the meeting link obtained from–privately, please–with colleagues interested in telephony or networks, information or media studies, business or labor history, or cyborgs.

Sebastian Giessmann, University of Siegen, “The Strowger Gambit: On How (Not) to Automate Telephone Switching”

The talk reconstructs the back and forth between early manual and automated telephone switching in the last third of the 19th century. It is part of my ongoing research on cultural techniques of networking. Basically, the narrative will focus on two U.S. cases while keeping European developments in mind. The first one concerns the manual New Haven Telephone Exchange of George W. Coy (1878), which I reconstruct by way of the Southern New England Telephone Company records. A second case in point are the numerous patents and models that proposed automating telephone exchanges, including Almon B. Strowger’s electromechanical apparatus for La Porte, Indiana (1891/92). In both cases, the gendered work of technical mediation–its skills and practices–is decisive. But the translation of manual techniques of the body into infrastructural automation took a twisted and uneasy path. If we follow it closely, we learn about the relations of addressing and networking, and also about telephony’s transformation into digital mediations.

Mara Mills, New York University, “Overload: Switchboard Automation and the Disability History of 0s and 1s”

This talk considers the early history of digital labor and automation through a focus on the telephone switchboard, to which Claude Shannon famously applied Boolean algebra for streamlining in 1938. Labor historians suggest that operator management issues as much as technical innovation drove switchboard automation after 1913, when the Bell Telephone System consolidated its power as a legally sanctioned monopoly. Thinking alongside Frantz Fanon’s mid-century insights about telephone operators, surveillance capitalism, and overwork, in this talk I highlight another 1913 shift—workers’ compensation for “disability” in New York and in the Bell System—as an overlooked cost and management factor in early automation.

Based on my research in the telephone exchange collections at the San Antonio branch of the AT&T archives, and building on the work of Venus Green and Kenneth Lipartito, I suggest that it wasn’t simply increasing salaries and numbers of operators that worried managers. Switchboards were also automated because telephone engineers and telephone exchange managers could not, in the end, standardize operators’ bodies and behavior—or rather, they could not standardize them without causing injury, compensation expenses, and time off of work. After the passage of workers’ compensation laws, as Sarah F. Rose has argued, managers attempted to screen disability out of the workplace, through physical examination of applicants, but these attempts were undermined by other elements of the efficiency paradigm: workload increases, speed-up, and the repetitive strain compelled by machine interaction. A related expense was the cost of the new and compulsory health program, which included pre-employment screenings on a nationwide scale, the hiring of medical staff and the establishment of medical departments in large exchanges across the country, improved sanitation, elaborate safety and training protocols, and payment for sick days, as well as payment of compensation for workplace accidents.

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