Chapter 12: New Media in Crises: Discursive Instability and Emergency Communication

Benjamin Peters, and Deborah Lubken

Media are paradoxical creatures: they often stimulate conversation in the very act of attempting to reduce the role of interpretation. This may be especially true of new media, understood simply as media scholars do not yet know how to talk about. Since at least formally acknowledging the “part played by people,” scholars have been preoccupied with the human desire to build communication systems that eliminate the need for interpretation. This chapter argues for a refreshed historical understanding of new media configurations by examining and comparing two such systems—fire alarms in early nineteenth-century New York and missile launch commands (or “go codes”) developed by mid twentieth-century computer network researchers. The first system—anchored by bells—broadcast information locally to all members of the community within earshot, while the second—motivated by bombs—directed covert signals carrying commands from military leaders to missile launch sites. Despite their obvious differences, both fire alarms and go codes were top-down command and control systems that privileged efficiently transmitting information in emergency situations for the purpose of community safety.

Eighteenth-century New York fire alarm ordinances simply directed fire fighters to immediately respond to the sound of the City Hall bell, and word of the fire’s location was disseminated through word of mouth and on-the-street investigation. As the city’s population grew after the Revolution, arrangements for summoning assistance increased in complexity, and efforts were made to shift the burden of transmitting information from interpersonal networks to standardized auditory and visual signals. On the other hand, the ARPANET—the first large-scale, distributed network computer network and predecessor to the contemporary Internet—emerged out of the US Defense Department research arm’s response to the threat of Soviet nuclear missile strike in the 1960s. Similar to the fire alarms, the ARPANET was developed to standardize and securitize the sending and delivery of informational signals. In late 1959, the Defense Department ordered Paul Baran, among others, to develop a computer network system that would effectively transmit the go code even in the event of serious infrastructural damage. The go code began as a simple message—to launch retaliatory missiles, or not—that, like the fire alarm system, was soon coupled with locational data, such as a launch timetable and target coordinates.

In both instances, neither fire alarm nor go code systems enabled unadulterated, point-to-point transmission of information. Instead, both were developed in response to situations that demanded fresh considerations of systems designed to pursue signal redundancy over greater distances and in increasingly complex socio-material environments; both showcase negotiations by parties interested in the implementation of this kind of communication system—from local and national governing bodies to ecclesiastic authorities; and both underscore how new media configurations are subject to the changing strategies and negotiations resulting from shifting technical, cultural, political, and social circumstances. This early comparative analysis will shed light on and raise pressing questions toward a critical rereading of new media less as functions of a progressive march of technical construction than as byproducts of human interpretation.