Call for papers: Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

International Conference
April 24-26, 2009
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In his seminal essay “The Bias of Communication” Harold Innis distinguishes between time-based and space-based media. Time-based media such as stone or clay, Innis agues, can be seen as durable, while space-based media such as paper or papyrus can be understood as portable, more fragile than stone but more powerful because capable of transmission, diffusion, connections across space. Speculating on this distinction, Innis develops an account of civilization grounded in the ways in which media forms shape trade, religion, government, economic and social structures, and the arts.

Our current era of prolonged and profound transition is surely as media-driven as the historical cultures Innis describes. His division between the durable and the portable is perhaps problematic in the age of the computer, but similar tensions define our contemporary situation. Digital communications have increased exponentially the speed with which information circulates. Moore’s Law continues to hold, and with it a doubling of memory capacity every two years; we are poised to reach transmission speeds of 100 terabits per second, or something akin to transmitting the entire printed contents of the Library of Congress in under five seconds.

Such developments are simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. They profoundly challenge efforts to maintain access to the vast printed and audio-visual inheritance of analog culture as well as efforts to understand and preserve the immense, enlarging universe of text, image and sound available in cyberspace.

What are the implications of these trends for historians who seek to understand the place of media in our own culture?

What challenges confront librarians and archivists who must supervise the migration of print culture to digital formats and who must also find ways to preserve and catalogue the vast and increasing range of words and images generated by new technologies?

How are shifts in distribution and circulation affecting the stories we tell, the art we produce, the social structures and policies we construct?

What are the implications of this tension between storage and transmission for education, for individual and national identities, for notions of what is public and what is private?

We invite papers from scholars, journalists, media creators, teachers, writers and visual artists on these broad themes. Potential topics might include:

* The digital archive
* The future of libraries and museums
* The past and future of the book
* Mobile media
* Historical systems of communication
* Media in the developing world
* Social networks
* Mapping media flows
* Approaches to media history
* Education and the changing media environment
* New forms of storytelling and expression
* Location-based entertainment
* Hyperlocal media and civic engagement
* New modes of circulation and distribution
* The transformation of television — from broadcast to download
* Cosmopolitanism backlashes against media change
* Virtual worlds and digital tourism
* The continuity principle: what endures or resists digital transformation?
* The fate of reading


Abstracts of no more than 500 words or full papers should be sent to Brad Seawell at no later than Friday, Jan. 9, 2009. We will evaluate abstracts and full papers on a rolling basis and early submission is highly encouraged. All submissions should be sent as attachments in a Word format. Submitted material will be subject to editing by conference organizers.

Email is preferred, but submissions can be mailed to:

Brad Seawell
MIT 14N-430
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

Please include a biographical statement of no more than 100 words. If your paper is accepted, this statement will be used on the conference Web site.

Please monitor the conference Web site at for registration information, travel information and conference updates.

Abstracts will be accepted on a rolling basis until Jan. 9, 2009.
The full text of your paper must be submitted no later than Friday, April 17. Conference papers will be posted to the conference Web site and made available to all conferees.

One comment on “Call for papers: Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

  1. I thought I’d add that I’ve just sent in an abstract for this. Here it is, for anyone who’s interested:

    Critical Thinking and Media Shifts: Exploring the Ethical Implications of Technological Change through the Thought of Walter Ong and Other Media Theorists

    Workers in professions as diverse as librarianship, law, journalism, and academic scholarship are motivated by a set of values that relate to dialectical reason and the use of texts as a medium for the storage of truth through time. These values compose a major part of what we understand as the Western worldview. Walter Ong was a scholar who traced the historical origins of these values to the development of the technology of alphabetic writing in the second millennium BCE and the influence of literacy on Western culture over ensuing centuries.

    This presentation will summarize Ong’s ideas about how alphabetic writing led to particular ways of seeing and to particular values, and will then engage in questions raised or suggested by media scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, who noted the rise of non-text-based media technology and found significant cultural implications in this media shift. Ong, McLuhan, Postman, and Aldous Huxley will be taken as a group in finding implications in shifting media for cultural values such as individualism, rationality, and democracy.

    Of specific concern in this presentation is the question of the foundations for criticism of developments that weigh against the deep cultural orientation underlying critical thinking. If the technology of writing itself is, as Ong believed, the historical cause of the values of rational discourse that now seem to have lost much of their status as a primary cultural guidepost in the present multi-media age, what justifies us in holding those values as a standard for critique? A defense of print-culture values per se would seem to be circular. A proposed answer is that rational discourse, though engendered and best supported by the use of the intellectual tools won through literacy, serves human interests that are basic, universal, and not dependent on a culture shaped by writing. The implication is that it is important to sustain the culture of writing and print literacy alongside the new visual and aural media, and that professions that are traditionally based on the use of texts should attend to their print-based ethical foundations as new media technologies reshape their functional conditions.

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