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Abstract Roland Wenzlhuemer

Societies and cultures depend on shared knowledge – for instance about different social roles and positions, the norms and behaviour associated with these roles, rights and duties, shared values or a common cultural heritage to name but a few examples. In order to be shared, knowledge on the one hand needs to circulate within a specific group. And on the other hand, of course, knowledge (or bits and pieces thereof) is also constantly exchanged with other such groups – purposefully or not. Hence, knowledge – willingly or not – is constantly on the move.

As knowledge only qualifies as knowledge when it is known by somebody, it can only continuously exist in communication. Thus, knowledge is constantly communicated, passed on from person to person, from society to society, from culture to culture. And, of course, it permanently changes its nature in the process. This is because communication is a mediated process. It needs to rely on some form of carrier – material or immaterial. Such carriers are always limited in suitability and capacity. Therefore, knowledge cannot be passed on in its entirety. And neither can it be received and identically replicated. The tiny piece of communicated knowledge always alloys with other available knowledge and is, thus, transformed.

From this it follows that two people cannot know the same – no matter which medium has facilitated the communication. But still different media foster very different transformations in the knowledge that is communicated. They have rationales that alter, limit or widen the array of choices that an actor – in this case a communicator – has. And while not invested with agency themselves, they can, thus, directly impact on the nature of knowledge and information. Especially in a historical context, however, the concrete ways in which media can unfold such powers remain obscure. Therefore, in my talk I will try to shed light on the issue by looking at a specific historical example – that of the telegraph and its influence over nineteenth-century exchanges of knowledge. With the help of three eclectic but concrete historical episodes it shall be demonstrated how exactly the use of a new medium could question and transform established forms of knowledge.

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