Chapter 14: Telephone Media: An Old Story

Gerard Goggin

The telephone has been with us since the last decades of the nineteen century. The cellular mobile phone, its eccentric, hybrid successor, is rather more recent, being available commercially since the late 1970s. Sometime in 2010, the number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide will top the five billion mark — now firmly established as an exemplary cultural technology. The aim of this chapter is to discuss the long histories of the mobile phone, and to use this case to explore the nature of new media and history. To do so, I focus on the curious nature of the telephone as a media form. The chapter is an account of the long history of attempts over at least a century to create different kinds of telephone media, and, closely related to this, to grasp, promote and legitimate the telephone, and the mobile phone, as media. I explore not only what are the contexts for understanding ‘newness’, but also, and related to this, fundamental questions about what counts as ‘media’. And what counts as media, and what their characteristics and implications are, of course, are very much a preoccupation of contemporary cultural politics.

To develop my argument, firstly I begin with a review of early experiments with the telephone, from the 1880s onwards, in which the nascent technology appears very closely associated with, resembling, or assembled as part of, media forms. Secondly, I look at the emergence of the cellular mobile phone from the middle of the twentieth century until the 1980s, and discuss moments where this new portable device was conceived as media. Thirdly, I look at the appearance of the term ‘mobile media’ from 2002 onwards, in industry, scientific and technical circles, public discourses, and theory. Here I am interested both in seeing what kind of claims are made to establish the media nature of mobiles, but also what kinds of rhetoric were used to authorise such calls (including the types of media histories that were marshaled).