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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Historical Dictionary of Media Usage


Heiko Christians, Matthias Bickenbach, Nikolaus Wegmann

Reference works promise easy access to knowledge. Efficient and readily accessible, they facilitate speedy orientation. Amid the increasing proliferation of reference works as databases and keyword-searchable online texts, it may seem unusual to publish our HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF MEDIA USAGE as, of all things, a book. But the book is only an obsolete format if one understands it merely as a simple container for knowledge. The book can do more.

The editors have chosen the book because it is handy – not only in the haptic sense, but also because of its ease of use in certain contexts. The dictionary is intended for teaching and self-instruction in the many courses of study in the area of media. This does not exclude the non-academic reader: on the contrary. As a book it should animate the reader to make the leap from their individual media use into a history of media usage, into its various forms and its effective definitional power in the world of media. The book can cast a new light onto the familiar, bring neighbouring entries within reach and thus awaken the reader’s interest. The editors are aware that there is no guarantee of success for this.

Each article is structured to provide assistance. All lemmata aim at a necessary degree of abstraction between bare-bones empiricism and overambitious theory which gathers the most divergent disciplinary approaches with regard to usage. Ways of using media are neither reduced to quantitative measurements and statistics, nor are they abstracted into the idiosyncratic vocabulary of a master thinker. Last but not least: the articles do not get lost in details that speak only to experts. The structure of the entries follows a heuristic that reliably leads to problem constellations and their socio-political, technical and historical contexts. Having been set as the mandatory procedure for all articles, this heuristic enables a comparative observation of different kinds of media usage.

Each article begins with an Anecdote. These can be surprising and, precisely as such, revealing stories that take their material from literature, politics, history or everyday life. As a significant story this narrative introduces the topic; as an unexpected discovery it arouses curiosity and thus prompts further reading. More than anywhere else, this is where the usages become vividly and intuitively accessible. Media practices are not archived in simple data and evidence, rather they are to be first discerned in stories. Together with the Etymology of each concept, the anecdote – alongside the concrete forms of usage – provides the narrative thread of the article. The historical dimension of each usage is further developed through the Contexts in which the corresponding concept is used, as well as through the Trends which indicate shifts not only in the semantic field, but also within technical or (alternatively) everyday forms of language use. Finally, in a further step, Antonyms to each analyzed praxis are staked out and explored. To give an example: Wherever there is a critical polemic against media usages of “distraction,” one will simultaneously find praise for what is understood to be its opposite, here: usage forms of “concentration,” or “contemplation.”

A Historical Dictionary does not remain mired in the past; after all, knowledge is won from the present. Every article eventually traces the respective media usage all the way into the present, where the conditions are notoriously messy. This occurs under consideration of the Perspectives of Applicability of the knowledge gathered up to that point, and is complemented by a sketch of Directions of Research motivated by the article. A selection of Recommended Literature prompts further reading. References provide orientation within the dictionary, and each article ends with a complete Bibliography.

The classic encyclopedic-alphabetical index suggests a completeness and representativeness that cannot be present in the media environments (old or new), in the constantly changing forms of usage to be analyzed here. To quote Hans Freyer from 1965, the only constant is a permanent “transformation of the foundations of normality within social life through the incursion of new technology.” Technology is not only the knowledge, coalesced in patents, of tinkerers or engineers, it is also the concrete manipulation of machines through developers and users. Behind the exclusive concentration on the concrete forms of media usage is a self-contained analytical perspective: usage is brought into play as the media-historical counterpart to mere machine technology and its intended purposes. Media are what their usage makes of them. With this counterintuitive postulate we see ourselves as adopting a traditional book- and knowledge format in order to adapt it to current conditions.

That the editors have chosen this heuristic also has to do with the state of media studies. Its rapid advancement is clearly spectacular. But this success must first be secured. Perhaps this very HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF MEDIA USAGE can contribute to the consolidation by advancing the foundational disciplinary concepts without which no field can exist. In an analogous fashion, sociology provided itself with the “skeleton” (Max Weber) of such foundational concepts after World War I. Yet no such canon of foundational concepts exists for media studies at this time. A candidate for such a canon, following the working hypothesis of this dictionary, is the concept of media usage. With its help we might be able to observe the world of media precisely where their proverbial dynamic becomes evident: at the front lines.

“The entertainment industry is in every sense of the word a misuse of military equipment.” Friedrich Kittler’s seminal words cite not only the topos according to which “war is the father of all things.” Read as an aphorism with epistemological surplus value, Kittler’s words are also the historical example of the definitional power of media usage. Radio, originally developed for military communication, is repurposed for entertainment. Instead of orders, music is transmitted. Media apparatuses, according to Kittler’s tenet, can be employed in manners that countermand their original intended use. Each new and differing use can bring forth other, no less significant successes.

As such, the present dictionary does not strive to present the correct or even just the most common ways of use, let alone seek to recommend them to the reader for orientation. Instead, what should become clear is that even the most prevalent uses of media are always just one potential manner of dealing with a medium. Innovation and creativity are present not only within the technical apparatus, but are equally to be found in the realm of media usage.

The individual articles of the dictionary do not set out to define what media really are; how book, writing, or video game differ from one another. Nor is there an interest in the foundations of the analog or digital encoding of media. Entries such as intermediality or information would be sought here in vain. Instead, the verb form draws attention to the mutual interaction between media and their use. This complex relation cannot be theorized as such. All that is feasible is a historical analysis of individual histories without pretensions to an overarching coherency. We are convinced that the present dictionary represents the right format for the furthering and circulation of a widely diversified knowledge of the media.

The provision of a binding heuristic as a scaffolding for each individual article requires an intensive cooperation between authors and editors. The editors and editorial staff thank the authors for having taken this elaborate set-up upon themselves.


–The Editors

Editors: Heiko Christians, Matthias Bickenbach, Nikolaus Wegmann
Editorial Staff: Judith Pietreck and Josef Ulbig
Translated by Carolina Malagon

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).