Parakeets, Morse Code, The ROAR of the Crowd

The Fading Signal of the Modem

Authored by: Anne C. Deger

The Routledge Companion to Media Technology and Obsolescence

Print publication date:  December  2018
Online publication date:  November  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138216266
eBook ISBN: 9781315442686
Adobe ISBN:


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Modems have been in use since the 1920s. They are still in use today. This chapter begins with a brief historical overview of modems and their development, from business and military applications to their eventual entrance into the home consumer market. A full discussion of the modem’s history in the home would span decades, exceeding the space available here, so this essay will limit itself primarily to the period of time where dial-up modems, along with home computers, transitioned from esoteric hobbyist equipment to ubiquitous consumer device: the 1990s. Each generation of modem users has its own set of memories, its own unique nostalgia, because each generation of modem users has worked under a different set of technological affordances and constraints. This essay examines the ways social spaces of the Internet shifted as larger populations of users became able to access them, and the ways in which that ease of access permanently altered those spaces. As modem technology continued to develop—as broadband access displaced dial-up as the norm, and was itself augmented by cellular data—these spaces shifted again. Eras of modem nostalgia are demarcated by these shifts in technology. The modem has not yet become obsolete, but certain types of modem have obsolesced. This essay explores the habits and practices encouraged by the now-obsolete modems of the 1990s, the 14.4k and 56k dial-up modems which enabled and defined the “Information Superhighway” era of the Internet.

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