Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture

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Digital culture is often characterized as radically breaking with past technologies, practices, and ideologies rather than as reflecting or incorporating them. Memory Bytes seeks to counter such ahistoricism, arguing for the need to understand digital culture—and its social, political, and ethical ramifications—in historical and philosophical context. Looking at a broad range of technologies, including photography, print and digital media, heat engines, stereographs, and medical imaging, the contributors present a number of different perspectives from which to reflect on the nature of media change. While foregrounding the challenges of drawing comparisons across varied media and eras, Memory Bytes explores how technologies have been integrated into society at different moments in time.

These essays from scholars in the social sciences and humanities cover topics related to science and medicine, politics and war, mass communication, philosophy, film, photography, and art. Whether describing how the cultural and legal conflicts over player piano rolls prefigured controversies over the intellectual property status of digital technologies such as mp3 files; comparing the experiences of watching QuickTime movies to Joseph Cornell’s “boxed relic” sculptures of the 1930s and 1940s; or calling for a critical history of electricity from the Enlightenment to the present, Memory Bytes investigates the interplay of technology and culture. It relates the Information Age to larger and older political and cultural phenomena, analyzes how sensory effects have been technologically produced over time, considers how human subjectivity has been shaped by machines, and emphasizes the dependence of particular technologies on the material circumstances within which they were developed and used.

Contributors. Judith Babbitts, Scott Curtis, Ronald E. Day, David Depew, Abraham Geil, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, Lisa Gitelman, N. Katherine Hayles, John Durham Peters, Lauren Rabinovitz, Laura Rigal, Vivian Sobchack, Thomas Swiss

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Anyone who teaches courses in digital culture or media studies knows how difficult it is to find scholarly essays on new media that consider these developments in relation to social and technological precedents. Memory Bytes fills this gap.”—Brian Goldfarb, author of Visual Pedagogy: Media Cultures in and beyond the Classroom

“Memory Bytes is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship taking the current moment of media change as an incitement to re-examine earlier moments in media history. The range of media, historical periods, and disciplinary perspectives is spectacular, representing interdisciplinary collaboration and conversation at its very best.”—Henry Jenkins, coeditor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822332282
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 2/1/2004
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Lauren Rabinovitz is Professor of American Studies and Cinema at the University of Iowa. She is the author of For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago and Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–1971 and coeditor of Television, History, and American Culture: Feminist Critical Essays, also published by Duke University Press.

Abraham Geil is an instructor in media history at the New School University in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Memory bytes

By Lauren Rabinovitz

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3241-8

Chapter One

Laura Rigal


Benjamin Franklin's New Experiments of 1751

If any one should doubt whether the electrical matter passes through the substance of bodies, or only over and along their surfaces, a shock from an electrified large glass jar, taken through his own body, will probably convince him.

Thus common matter is a kind of spunge [sic] to the electrical fluid.-BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, New Experiments and Observations on Electricity

American cultural historians have typically focused upon Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod and kite experiments as the most meaningful of his electrical innovations of the 1740s and 1750s. The folk mythology of Franklin's kite-flying adventure, for example, has become a byword for a democratic, do-it-yourself "American" scientific culture, in which ordinary people using ordinary materials produce extraordinary results. Franklin's invention of the lightning rod has made him similarly accessible to Whig allegory as a "modern Prometheus" bringing fire from heaven and stealing thunder from kings and gods. Franklin's most significant contribution to electrical science as cultural practice was not his lightning rod, however, but his single-fluid model of electricity and the "discovery" and naming of "positive" versus "negative" electrical charges. Indeed, Franklin could not have imagined performing experimentswith lightning without having first articulated his model of a single electrical fluid operating according to the principle of bipolar charges, a fluid that could then be "drained" from the clouds by means of a pointed rod or wire.

Elaborated throughout his New Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America (1751, 1753, 1769, 1774), Franklin's single-fluid model and his theory of charges were demonstrated in comparatively mundane performances such as "the electric kiss," the "electric party," or "the electric book." Unlike his famous kite experiment, these were not particularly original in form but rather closely mimicked electrical entertainments already being performed in European courts and philosophical circles. Unlike the lightning rod, moreover, experiments like "the electric kiss" did not pretend to shield organic beings from electrical power; on the contrary, they inserted human bodies directly into Franklin's electrical system as conduits of the electrical fluid and witness to its effects.

When Franklin first began to perform experiments in Philadelphia in 1745, he entered a highly politicized world of European electrical investigation in which British, French, Dutch, and German experimenters played a leading role. Many of the parameters of electrical experiment had already been marked out by British exhibitors (such as William Watson, Benjamin Rackstrow, and Benjamin Martin), when in 1751 Watson read a paper before the Royal Society summarizing Franklin's contributions. Like Franklin, Watson had spent the late 1740s sending electricity across rivers, igniting alcoholic "spirits," and directing electric shocks through the bodies of variously connected ladies and gentlemen. And, like Watson, Franklin would exploit the Newtonian doctrine of active fluids (sometimes called "electrical aether") elaborated in Newton's texts as well as in those by Homberg and Boerhaave.

Franklin used numerous metaphors to describe the Newtonian flows of his electricity, calling it variously a "fluid," a "fire," or an "aether," consisting of "particles extremely subtile [sic] that can permeate common matter, even the densest metals, with ... ease and freedom." But Franklin's electrical matter was, above all, a single, unitary substance and his New Experiments are, therefore, an extended demonstration of the conservation of charges, whereby "any production of a positive charge in one body (a net gain in electrical fluid) is always accompanied by an equal and opposite negative charge (a net loss in electrical fluid) in one or more other bodies." The shocking or entertaining effects of plus (+) and minus (-) charges remain embedded in the underlying "sameness" of a fluid that "is equally diffused in our walls, floors, earth, and the whole mass of common matter." Thus, Franklin writes, friction "will produce electrical fire, not by creating, but collecting it." The terms plus (+) and minus (-) mathematize the accumulations (+) or evacuations (-) of an electrical fluid that could be collected or subtracted via conduction or, conversely, contained or blocked by nonconducting materials. When set in motion by the electrician the fluid simply circulates, creating remarkable effects (and affects) in the process of "electrising" or "de-electrising" the bodies brought into contact with the system-until it reaches equilibrium or again finds "its original equality."

Historian of science Otto Mayr has argued that the eighteenth century origins of cybernetic systems must be traced to pneumatic and steam technologies, and especially to James Watt's centrifugal "governor" of 1788, a mechanical feedback device that automatically controlled the intake of steam in relation to engine load. By contrast, Franklin's electrical experiments of the 1740s and 1750s do not describe any such automatic, self-governing device capable of feeding information-about results, or output-back into a dynamic system. Yet while they do not technically anticipate closed circuit feedback systems, Franklin's New Experiments are indispensable to narrating the history of the adoption or assimilation of such systems by other (social, political, and cultural) systems. This examination of Franklin's New Experiments argues that the origin of cybernetics must be traced not only to a collection of mechanical or intellectual devices but also to the emergence of a remarkably simple code. Stated as a mathematical relation, Franklin's +/- installed the principle of dynamic balance as a universal inscription device. A sign system so simple and insistent that it outstripped (while integrating) all signifieds, Franklin's device preceded, and then accompanied, the development of early industrial technologies such as Watt's steam engine. Franklin's +/- was a "metacode" that put into circulation the binary structure of systematicity itself. Readily suturing to the dynamic binaries that constituted other systems and macrosystems, it revealed their structures to be parallel and thus accessible to integration. Even today, any "open" (yet closed) dynamic system that is marked by speed and universal penetration is often denominated "electric."

As a result +/- was also, however, a management device that promised control over unruly energies that threatened (even while they were becoming vital resources for) an imperial, early industrial nation-state. This is why Franklin's articulation of electrical "flows" helps to explain the dynamics of digital assimilation today, particularly the mixture of conflict and (ultimately) consensus that structures the way in which Americans absorb and adapt to new technologies. In this essay I focus on those experiments in which Franklin's sign system +/- functions to integrate an array of objects and bodies while working at the same time to suture larger institutional, political, social, and even economic systems into a virtually integrated whole. Because Franklin's electrical ideas were put into circulation in the form of published letters and papers (in books, pamphlets, or magazines) it is necessary to begin with his medium, the printed text of his New Experiments, and, within it, his predilection for experimenting on the physical bodies of books themselves.

Franklin's New Experiments of 1751 circulated in the form of a scientific pamphlet. The first edition consisted of twelve letters and papers addressed primarily to Peter Collinson, a Fellow of the British Royal Society and a London merchant. While the New Experiments eventually went through five London editions between 1751 and 1774, the papers of the first edition were, for the most part, reprinted in each of the subsequent editions. The genre and style of the writings collected in the New Experiments are closely adapted from the "good-humoured" prose of eighteenth-century magazines or periodical essays, such as the London Gentleman's Magazine, the Tatler, the Spectator, and the straightforward style of essays in the Transactions of the British Royal Society. In fact, excerpts of Franklin's experiments eventually appeared in both the Gentleman's Magazine and the Royal Society's Transactions, and it was editor Edmund Cave of the Gentleman's Magazine who published the first edition of the New Experiments.

Performed in response to, and for, publication, Franklin's New Experiments constitute a form of what Bruno Latour calls "paperwork," or science performed inseparably from the writing and the publishing of texts. But while the New Experiments operated as paperwork at the level of London publishing, they also operated as paperwork at a more mathematized level of inscription because they put into circulation the marks of (+) and (-) that are still used to indicate positive versus negative electrical charges. Historian of science Simon Schaffer observes that Franklinian electricity eventually won out over numerous French and British competitors, most of whom had been in the field long before Franklin. Shaffer argues that Franklin's success was due to the fact that Franklin managed to avoid the kind of political and social controversy that inhibited the reception and advancement of European experiments. Other historians have suggested that Franklin's originality was due to his comparative isolation in Philadelphia where he could think more independently or with a kind of freshness, so that his theory suddenly gave "a single unified account of all the data of the subject and thereby for the first time congealed a miscellaneous collection of knowledge into the rigid form of a single unified scientific discipline." 16 However, Franklin's bipolar electrical fluid was not merely "American," it was Anglo-American. And its most original features must be attributed to the fact that his single-fluid model of charges was an economic model that primarily replayed-albeit in a more efficient, streamlined form-the structural dynamics of an expanding British industrial state.

Written in an accessible, plain style, Franklin's New Experiments read like electrical recipes or do-it-yourself magic tricks that almost anyone might see and imitate. Like his later autobiography (1790), they appear to be "good-humoured" guides to the generation of power by any ordinary or "common" person who is able to read. Despite their emphasis on ultimate equality and equilibrium, however, the New Experiments are not only about the liberation of physical, affective, and economic energies but also are equally about their control. Franklin was committed to the Enlightenment ideal of the diffusion of information, and he believed that republican political power was rooted in and diffused through the collective body of what he called "the People." Yet, like an Enlightenment-era Prospero, Franklin believed that this body must, finally, be controlled by its head. It was to be managed (or rather, self-managed) by a knowing bourgeois managerial class of engineers: the owners of books, schooled in the flows of energy. As an electrical engineer of the British imperial state, Franklin was deeply invested in print pedagogy as a way of stimulating and embodying his heady dreams of union and expansion.

In the 1740s and 1750s, Franklin was a colonial Loyalist and a Whig expansionist who admired the English Constitution, especially the House of Commons, and he hoped to see the more liberal elements of Britain's political and economic system expand across North America, if not the globe. He published the first edition of his New Experiments in the years immediately preceding the Seven Years' (or "French and Indian") War, the war of empire that the British won in 1763. As his autobiography points out, he actively aided the British military operation of the Seven Years' War even while his fame as an electrician was growing in Europe. Indeed, Franklin often employed military materials like guns and shot in his New Experiments, not only because they were made of metal but because (like books and bookbinding materials) they came conveniently to hand in Philadelphia.

Certainly, as Shaffer and others have suggested, Franklin's scientific success can be traced to his evasion of open personal and political conflict and to his skill at silently turning conflict to his own advantage. Yet, these personal and political forms of success cannot be neatly separated from his elaboration of the +/- denotation of electrical bipolarity, the inscription device he deployed as a way of summarizing and proliferating electricity. Nor can Franklin's summation of dynamic balance (or connection via separation) be fully understood apart from the array of institutional, socioeconomic, and political transformations through which he emerged as printer and author and which he helped to integrate.

Instead of his legendary kite experiment, then, the key to Franklinian science lies in those experiments in which Franklin charged, discharged, and recharged comparatively ordinary bodies and objects in the process of performing his New Experiments. Franklin's electrical wizardry consists in conversion of powerful physical and/ or affective "energies" (including sexual desire and lust for power) into the +/- of "electricity." In American cultural history, the ideology of affect and the emergence of sensationalism are usually traced to the eighteenth-century Gothic and sentimental novel, or to eighteenth-century oratory and theater and the epistemological or psychological theories that informed them. The texts of eighteenth-century electrical science are less often included in the history of the emergence of affective and physiological "feeling." Experiments such as the "electric kiss" or "electrocuted turkey," however, reveal that Franklin's writings on electricity not only occupy a central position in the history of eighteenth-century electrical science, but also articulate an array of bipolar feeling states, such as pleasure and pain, fear and laughter, attraction and repulsion. Even while they are evoked and displayed, the energies (and historical valence) of powerful feelings are always ultimately under the electrician's control-rendered chaste, "good-humoured," and mathematically balanced even while the industrious generation of charges remains intertwined with entertainment and erotica.

From Bodies Erotic to the Body Electric

Franklin began to experiment with electricity in...., when Collinson sent him a glass tube for creating static electricity and the Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn sent him a more elaborate apparatus -the Leyden jar, or "phial." A Leyden jar is a lead-covered glass jar filled with water or metal, with a wire passed into the interior and protruding from the cork at the top. When this wire is charged positively the lead exterior of the jar is charged negatively, and vice versa. Franklin experimented extensively with the Leyden jar, and in one instance he demonstrates its function by suspending a cork between two wires; the first wire is attached to the lead at the bottom of the jar, and the second extends from the cork at the top. The inequality of charges in the two wires is evidenced by the motion of the cork, which must perform the labor of "fetching and carrying" the electrical charge until "equilibrium is restored": "If a cork suspended by a silk thread (f) hang between these two wires, it will play incessantly from one to the other, 'till the bottle is no longer electrised; that is, it fetches and carries fire from the top to the bottom of the bottle, 'till the equilibrium is restored." In a closely related experiment, the labor of fetching and carrying becomes the principle of both animation and entertainment when the Leyden jar is used to electrify a "spider" made of thread. Here the +/- of Franklinian electricity equates the life energy of organic systems with the fluid mechanics of motion to produce a "life-form": "Made of a small piece of burnt cork, with legs of linnen [sic] thread, and a grain or two of lead stuck in him, to give him more weight [the spider is suspended by a thread between two wires, set at about eight inches apart].... Then, we animate him [by applying the Leyden jar to one of the wires] ... He will immediately fly to the wire of the phial, bend his legs in touching it; then spring off and fly to the wire in the table: thence again to the wire of the phial, playing with his legs against both, in a very entertaining manner [and appearing] perfectly alive to persons unacquainted." Here the +/- code of electricity sutures a mechanical system to "animated" nature-making nature seem to operate by mechanical laws-while displaying, in the body of the leaping spider, the back-and-forth act of the suturing itself.


Excerpted from Memory bytes by Lauren Rabinovitz Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Imperial Attractions: Benjamin Franklin's New Experiments of 1751 23
From Heat Engines to Digital Printouts: Machine Models of the Body from the Victorian Era to the Human Genome Project 47
The Erasure and Construction of History for the Information Age: Positivism and Its Critics 76
More than the Movies: A History of Somatic Visual Culture through Hale's Tours, IMAX, and Motion Simulation Rides 99
Stereographs and the Construction of a Visual Culture in the United States 126
The Convergence of the Pentagon and Hollywood: The Next Generation of Military Training Simulations 150
Helmholtz, Edison, and Sound History 177
Media, Materiality, and the Measure of the Digital; or, The Case of Sheet Music and the Problem of Piano Rolls 199
Still/Moving: Digital Imaging and Medical Hermeneutics 218
Bodies of Texts, Bodies of Subjects: Metaphoric Networks in New Media 257
Electronic Literature: Discourses, Communities, Traditions 283
Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime 305
Selected Bibliography 331
Contributors 335
Index 339
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