Distributed Networks: Media Archaeologies of Educational TV and Communication Studies in Canada, 1945-1975

Keywords: educational television; cybernetics; postwar media history; media archaeology; media ecology; media education; media aesthetics; media and social change

In Canada, the uptake of educational technologies such as television in the postwar decades was enthusiastic across a range of fields. Schools, universities, religious organizations, associations of adult education, even broadcast television, participated in the educational mandate. As educational media grew in conjunction with the mass educational mandates of the technocratic 1950s it became inextricably tied up with education’s modernist aspirations and aesthetics. It was also foundational to the development of new scholarship and theory on the social implications and effects of contemporary media, from TV to computing, associated with the Toronto School of Communication Theory (e.g. Marshall McLuhan) and funded by American philanthropic organizations (e.g. Rockefeller, Ford). The affordances of networked video technologies further contributed to distinctive kinds of media ecology typified by late 1960s and early 1970s political/aesthetic activism (e.g. VIVO Media Arts Centre).

Using the metaphor of the distributed network—a computing network spread over different, semi-autonomous networks—the principal goal of this project is to excavate and explore the multiple interrelated media archaeologies of educational TV in Canada and in so doing expand and complicate the received history of postwar Canadian media and communication. The period under consideration begins when technologies, including televisual ones, developed or applied in warfare were repurposed for civilian application (1945). The study’s endpoint (1975) marks a moment when some of the promise and perils of TV for education were absorbed into the precursors to digital networks and the establishment of the first wave of Communication Studies departments in universities across Canada. The project traces educational TV and cybernetics—or the conceptualization of communication and control in human-machine systems—as parallel histories beginning in the years after WWII. It further investigates the degree to which the two fields mutually informed the emergence of the scholarly field of Communication Studies.

Over the five-year period of the grant (2021-2026), the team will pursue research in a range of archives in order to develop richly elaborated inventories, case studies and close readings of the institutions, individuals and technologies that participated in this history. We attend to the material practices and technical operations of media devices, systems, and institutions—particularly those typically forgotten or overlooked in conventional approaches to the history of media and technology, and to the politics of the archival record.