The University of Iowa

Taping, changing the world

January 21st, 2010

By John Durham Peters and Kembrew McLeod

This is an opinion piece written for the Press Citizen in coordination with International Programs’ segment titled WorldCanvass “Taping the World.”

Many of us have little treasure chests lying around, and we barely notice them. They’re forgotten, lost, or just abandoned to the pile of material possessions accumulating in our closets and garages. These boxes contain camcorder-created home movies, ghostly recordings of loved ones now dead, audio vérité snapshots of living room scenes and obsessively crafted mix-tapes traded in the throes of courtship.

They tell stories about our lives, but the funny thing is that most of us can’t even access those memories — for they are stored on old videotapes and audiocassettes that have been swept aside in the name of progress. The Sony Walkman gave way to the iPod, and the once-ubiquitous VHS tape surrendered itself to the trash heap once the DVD marched into retail stores. We can’t bring ourselves to throw any of this stuff out, for sentimental reasons, even though most of us no longer have functioning playback devices.

Practically speaking, so much of our lives are irretrievable — tangled up in magnetic tracings on decaying, plastic reels. What are we to do with these graveyards of recorded images and sounds? One thing we can do is study them, because obsolete technologies can teach us a lot about our history. Only when things die out do they become ripe subjects for historical investigation, even if that “history” might only be 20 years ago.

Technologies aren’t just devices that we operate; they cooperate with us in the most literal sense. They teach us how to hear, see, feel, create and communicate. When we lose a technology, we lose part of ourselves, and what’s so interesting about the magnetic tape is how rapidly it disappeared — especially for a medium that made such a deep imprint on society for half a century.

Tape played a major role in mid-twentieth century global culture. In politics, tape brought down a surveillance-obsessed President Nixon and also raised up the Ayatollah Khomeini, who used the tape recorder to spread his fiery sermons and to ignite the Iranian revolution of 1979. In music, tape enabled daring new sounds, from the avant-garde tape cut ups of William Burroughs to the lysergic cut-and-paste pop experimentation of the Beatles, and on to hip hop, which spread from person to person via mix-tapes long before radio picked up on this genre.

Tape gave scholars and scientists a new tool for analyzing coughs, teaching foreign languages and listening to everyday talk. Scientists used tape’s pitch-shifting powers to eavesdrop on the ultrasonic voices of dolphins. It gave us new ears. The tape recorder was a time-storer and time-stretcher. It saved fragile things, from beloved voices to dolphin squeaks, and then it let us play them back, speed them up, slow them down and also cut, loop and mix them. It vastly enlarged the ability to record and create culture. It gave us the uncanny power to freeze and thaw time at the push of a button. It deserves a place alongside the other great cultural preservers such as writing, photography, film and the computer.

For these reasons, we have tasked ourselves to examine the global legacy of the tape in a University of Iowa International Programs-sponsored lecture series titled “Taping the World.”

We will discuss this project on the next WorldCanvass program, hosted by Joan Kjaer, at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum. The lecture series’ first event of the semester is a double-header Jan. 28, featuring lectures by Iowa’s own Garrett Stewart, the James O. Freedman professor of letters, and Steven Connor, professor of English at the University of London.

It is fitting that we should study the legacy of the tape recorder in Iowa, for our state has a culture of preservation. Perhaps our cold winters help us preserve forms of culture that might melt in warmer climates — the arts, reading, writing and music making.

The tape recorder might have come and gone, but its aim to treasure precious things is still very much part of what we in Iowa are about.