My research attempts to uncover and analyze information labor over time and space. Most of my own original research is written as single-authored, book-length historical narratives involving the application of geographical imagination; such “monographs” take many years to assemble, but offer a broad sweep, a multitude of connections to other scholarship, and a long “shelf life.” My first monograph (published in 2002) used the case of telegraph messenger boys over a 100-year period of American history to consider how information internetworks are developed and deployed in concert with daily human labor. My second monograph (published in 2008) explored the hidden translation and transcription labor of television closed-captioners and courtroom stenographers and the movement of these practices from analog to digital technology over half a century of “communication justice” activism. Right now I’m working on the research for my third monograph, which will look at the “metadata labor” of library professionals in the decades between World War II and the World Wide Web. (And a project on the history of journalism and computers waits in the wings.)
I have also been involved as an editor for several anthologies of my colleagues’ work that is related to information labor. This kind of scholarship helps to connect and contextualize research into a larger cooperative program of inquiry, crossing boundaries between different disciplines, different universities, and different national contexts. In 2004, my co-editor Aad Blok and I published a special issue of the International Review of Social History on the long history of information labor which demonstrates that this concept is crucial to any understanding of modernization, industrialization, and globalization. And in 2012, my co-editors Rima Apple and Steve Vaughn and I published a volume drawn from the biennial conference of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture on the relationship of scientific knowledge production to print and digital information networks.
I’ve also spent time translating my research findings, and the research findings of others, into formats that are more accessible to scholars new to the field of information labor. In 2011 I published a 94-page introductory text on technology and communication in American history, sposored by the American Historical Association and the Society for the History of Technology, intended for undergraduate audiences new to the subject. And in 2013 I published a 12,000-word chapter in the new MIT Press book Media Technologies (edited by Pablo Boczkowski, Kirsten Foot, and Tarleton Gillespie) which outlines some strategies for dealing with time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures.
All of the scholarship I have described is really a collaborative conversation across space and time between researchers, their colleagues, their sources, and their audiences. But two of my current projects represent more intensely-shared academic labor. The first, with colleagues Noah Feinstein and Daniel Kleinman, explores the intellectual, cultural, and political-economic roots of the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery as an intentional model for a new way of constructing and conducting high-value interdisciplinary knowledge work in an environment of public engagement (funded by the NSF). The second, with colleagues Kristin Eschenfelder and Kalpana Shankar, uncovers the history of social science data archives as contested and contradictory knowledge infrastructures.
For a complete listing of my research, please see my cv. For specifics on some of these projects, see below.
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Gregory J. Downey, The push-button library: Computers and the transformation of metadata labor, 1945-1995. Tentative title for my third monograph, which I’m currently researching. I’ve already explored some of these topics in chapters for T. Misa, ed., Gender codes: Women and men in the computing professions (Charles Babbage Institute and IEEE-CS, 2010) and C. McKercher and V. Mosco, eds., Knowledge workers in the information society (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).
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Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn, eds., Science in Print: Essays on the the History of Science and the Culture of Print (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2012). $34.95 paper; $24.95 ebook. Edited volume drawn from the September 2008 Conference on The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine, organized by the UW-Madison Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture. Ever since the threads of seventeenth-century natural philosophy began to coalesce into an understanding of the natural world, printed artifacts such as laboratory notebooks, research journals, college textbooks, and popular paperbacks have been instrumental to the development of what we think of today as “science.” But just as the history of science involves more than recording discoveries, so too does the study of print culture extend beyond the mere cataloguing of books. In both disciplines, researchers attempt to comprehend how social structures of power, reputation, and meaning permeate both the written record and the intellectual scaffolding through which scientific debate takes place. Science in Print brings together scholars from the fields of print culture, environmental history, science and technology studies, medical history, and library and information studies. This ambitious volume paints a rich picture of those tools and techniques of printing, publishing, and reading that shaped the ideas and practices that grew into modern science, from the days of the Royal Society of London in the late 1600s to the beginning of the modern U.S. environmental movement in the early 1960s
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Gregory J. Downey, Technology and Communication in American History (Washington, DC: Society for the History of Technology / American Historical Association, 2011). 94 pp; $15.00 paper. This 94-page booklet explores the history of communication technology in the United States from the colonial period to the present, including print culture, wired networks, broadcast communication, and the digital convergence of communication in cyberspace. Each new round of communication technology is situated within four overlapping historical themes: national integration, industrial urbanization, mass consumption, and global economic restructuring. Drawing upon both well-known and more recent scholarly work–from the historiography of technology, communication studies, information studies, and human geography–Greg Downey pays close attention not only to the state and the market as sources of technological innovation, but also to the audience and the laborer as key actors in technological adoption. Fully illustrated and with a comprehensive bibliography, this booklet is suitable for both students and faculty seeking an accessible but analytical introduction to the history of American communication technology.
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Gregory J. Downey, Closed captioning: Subtitling, stenography, and the digital convergence of text with television (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). 328 pp; $52.00 hardcover. In this engaging study, Gregory J. Downey traces the development of closed captioning — a field that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s froms a decades-long intersection of cinematic subtitling, courtroom stenography, and education for the deaf. He discusses how digital computers, coupled with human mental and physical skills, made live television captioning possible. Downey’s survey reveals the hidden information workers who mediate live audiovisual action and the production of written records. His work examines the relations between communication technology and human geography and explores the place of labor in a technologically complex and spatially fragmented world.
An impressive and ambitious account of the history of the technology, geography, labor, and politics of three speech-to-text systems — subtitling, closed captioning for television, and court reporting. It is an original, well written and researched, and an important book.
— Ron Kline, Cornell University
[T]races the history of these unsung heroines and those in complementary occupations of court reporting and foreign film subtitling. He reminds the reader that it is not only the deaf who benefit from this work.
— SciTech Book News (2008)
[P]rovides a through explanation of how the technology developed, and after reading Closed Captioning, you will never again take the technology for granted and you will clearly understand its role as a communication medium.
— Susan Barnes, Technology & Culture (2009)
[C]ontains a wealth of information that will further the ongoing debate surrounding these issues and will be of interest to students of the media and communications technology.
— Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb, Business History Review (2009)
This volume extensively details the socioeconomic patterns of the emerging technologies of textualized speech. Gender roles, for example, have pivoted around each of the professions discussed, and, because great use-value is created in these practices, the unusual circumstance of feminized labor that is also high-paid has been associated with these professions. This book also strikingly reveals how technology and even economy have produced opportunities for marginalized groups, like deaf/HOH and recent immigrants, to participate in mainstream activities like watching movies and television.
— David B. Broad, International Social Science Review (2009)
In illustrating the historical development of closed captioning in court systems as well as television, and by comparing these parallel speech-to- text domains, the author provides a level of insight that is impressive in its depth and breadth.
— Asta Zelenkauskaite, The Information Society (2010)
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Aad Blok and Greg Downey, eds., Uncovering labour in information revolutions, 1750-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 268 pp; $29.99 softcover. Most discussions of the present-day Information Revolution are focused on the technological developments in the realm of information and communication, and tend to overlook both the human labour involved in the development, maintenance and daily use of these information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the consequences of the implementation of these ICTs for the position and divisions of labour. This volume aims to redress this imbalance by exploring the role, position and divisions of information and communication labour in the broadest sense through periods of revolutionary technological change. With contributions on a variety of geographies in this latest as well as in earlier information ages, this collection offers a comparative insight into the continuities and discontinuities in information revolutions. This special supplement to the International Review of Social History contains 8 articles plus introduction by Aad Blok and commentary by Greg Downey.
What is fascinating in these accounts is the light they shed on how the identities which result are shaped by the interplay between coercion and resistance, initiative and intertia; how the employers’ ad hoc demands for particular discrete skills and competencies are countered by workers’ aspirations for coherently demarcated occupations which provide personal identity, development and status; and how these in turn are shaped by specific histories and geographies.
— Ursula Huws, International Review of Social History (2004)
There is no shortage of histories of information ‘revolutions’. But, as the editors of this supplement to the International Review of Social History explain, much of this literature is internalist, focused on technology and corporations, and tends towards technological boosterism. […] The editors argue that, in contrast, the impact of information technologies on labour has been neglected.
— Martin Campbell-Kelly, Economic History Review (2004)
It seems that Wiener’s concern for ‘the human use of human beings’ was one endorsed by the editors when assembling the excellent chapters in this book, which is a rich source of additional material to the literature.
— Michael J. Lynskey, Business History (2006)
[D]emonstrates the importance of writing a labour history of communication and information technology by making workers the units of analysis and using that history ‘as a lever for wider societal changes’
— Vincent Mosco, Canadian Journal of Communication (2008)
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Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph messenger boys: Labor, technology, and geography, 1850-1950 (Routledge, 2002). 240 pp; $26.95 softcover. Telegraph Messenger Boys provides an entirely new perspective on the telegraph system, a communications network that revolutionized human perceptions of time and space. The book also tells a broader story of human interaction with technology, and social and cultural changes brought about by this relationship. Downey argues that the telegraph network was not merely an electromechanical system but a labor system as well. An army of uniformed boys worked for the telegraph companies, linking ordinary human labor to our first electronic information system. With a wealth of fascinating observations about the role of youth, labor and cities in creating the nation’s first electronic grid, this study draws many useful parallels between this first “internetwork” and the one that is evolving now.
This is interdisciplinary scholarship at its very best and pioneers an approach to understanding communication networks that has deep relevance to contemporary conditions.
— David Harvey, City University of New York
[O]pens a scholarly window onto a little-explored world: not just that of the teenaged information workers of an earlier era, but that of the human side of any technological revolution. It suggests a rich vein of investigation into our own information age.
—Paul Soukup, Communication Research Trends (2002)
[O]ne of the most insightful books in the history of technology that I have read in a long time. Through a close examination of the intersections between labor, space, time, and technology, Downey points the way to a new and fruitful framework for making sense of our networked world.
— David Hochfelder, Technology & Culture (2003)
[A] much-needed work that fills a large gap in the literature on the world’s first telecommunications system and invites further scholarship on the subject.
—Thomas Jepsen, Isis (2003)
[A] pioneering and insightful study—and a model of interdisciplinary scholarship—that deserves a wide readership.
— Howard P. Segal, American Historical Review (2003)
[O]ffers intriguing analytical approaches for labor historians and is a worthy contribution to communications history.
—William S. Pretzer, Journal of American History (2003)
[E]nlightens the readers by demonstrating how technology is composed of social relations and continual negotiations that worked to create its own space and time through the aid of the young messenger boy.
—Carrie Sanders, Space and Culture (2003)
Downey’s decision to enter the world of the telegraph by means of the boys who delivered the telegrams allows him to explore a wide range of fascinating questions about technology, labour, gender, age, organization, and, of course, space and time.
— James Naylor, Histoire Sociale / Social History (2004)
Downey’s focus on the bottom rung of the employment ladder offers a unique perspective on the telegraph’s development and sheds light on the broader labor market, particularly the market for child labor.
— Tomas Nonnenmacher, EH.Net (2004)
By attending to the geographical dimensions of human labor in constructing an earlier communication system, Downey makes clear how understanding the telegraph can help us to make better sense of other information systems, past and present.
– Jennifer Light, International Review of Social History (2004)
[N]ot only a fascinating and well-researched history, but also provides important insights into contemporary debates about the relationship between human labor and information technology.
— Christopher Wright, Enterprise & Society (2004)
Gregory J. Downey’s monograph sheds light on the complexity of competing systems of work between people and machines. He makes an important point on the symbiotic rather than linear path of technological change.
— Harold L. Platt, Journal of Urban History (2007)