Chapter 3: Cutting the Cord and “Crying Socialist Wolf”: Unwiring the Public and Producing the Third Place

Stephanie Schulte

This chapter uses wireless technology as a case study to discuss and model an advantageous method for studying new media. While new media are major and transforming components of life for much of the United States and, increasingly, the world, they are not merely technologies. They are also cultural locations and leading frameworks for understanding shifts in democracy, consumption, capitalism, and public space, as well as the nation’s future within these shifting landscapes. A testament to the productive power of ideas and cultural conceptions, this work is an example of how useful it is in studies of new media to examine the complicated and indirect ways cultural production operates. This study traces the history of narratives about wireless technology that circulate in the public sphere in the early 2000s. By identifying and analyzing complex overlapping narratives about wireless technology, this chapter places cultural representations in their political, historical, economic, and cultural contexts, providing insight into how new media participated in larger important debates.

This project builds on works such as Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New, and Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV to investigate new practices of digital mapping, cellular telephony, global positioning, and wireless networking that allowed individuals to participate in rewriting, remapping, and personalizing their environments as well as public space. News media and policy discussions of these technologies focused on the technology’s individualistic and democratic potentials, drawing on techno-utopian rhetoric of the late 1980s and early 1990s and Al Gore’s famous “information superhighway” political rhetoric of the 1990s and projecting it from virtual onto the physical realms. For example, as Wired reported in June 2007, emerging wireless technologies will create what the magazine calls the “Internet of Things,” or hyperlinked and digitally tagged public objects, buildings, and locations. These digital tags, accessible with a cellular phone’s digital camera, will allow individuals to experience their physical surrounds as “clickable,” much as they understand cyberspaces. These shifts are imagined in this and other sources as transporting virtual liberation to the physical world.

But, as this chapter illustrates, culture and policy (as a cultural actor) – and not necessarily technological capabilities – determined the ways the technology was understood; these understandings, in turn, had material consequences and helped shape the development of new media technology. Focus on the emergence of representations of the new media within a larger cultural context – as seen in news media, advertising, films, and policy – offers a window into central tensions of various historical moments, showing that discourses have formative effects on technology and on the society that produced it. In its focus on ideas, this study brings a variety of disciplinary perspectives to the study of the new media – including those of cultural studies, media studies, and policy studies. By combining cultural studies and policy analysis methods in particular, this work provides insight into how policymakers engaged visions of the new media in popular culture and news media to enable some policy solutions over others, thereby directing the new media’s development. In this case study, liberatory rhetoric focused government attention on wireless technology as key to the future of democracy.