Media and Epidemics: Technologies of Science Communication and Public Health in the 20th and 21st Centuries


What is the relationship between technologies of communication and social and cultural change? This collaborative project between humanities researchers and art practitioners proposes to explore this question from the viewpoint of public health and illness. More specifically, it seeks to document (from historical and contemporary, as well as trans-disciplinary and trans-regional perspectives) the role of media and communication technologies in the making and management of epidemic outbreaks in Poland, Rumania, Great Britain, and India.

Through its strong public outreach component that incorporates different forms of artistic expression, the project also aims to devise innovative educational tools that help to restore the memory of past pandemics to public consciousness and promote critical thinking about public health, and media and technology in the Digital Age. As medical and social phenomena, epidemics tend to be highly mediatized events, although the limits and local inflections of that mediatization are yet to be subjected to sustained critical attention in both historical and contemporary settings. This further underscores the role of media and technology in the making and management of epidemics.

At the same time, however, technologies of communication have also been central to the circulation of ‘infectious’ (mis)information, especially since the advent of the electric telegraph in the first half of the nineteenth century. If prior to the arrival of the telegraph information moved physically through space along with its material carriers, the new technology anticipated the Internet by making possible a dematerialized mobility, in which intelligence travelled faster and farther as electric signals along an increasingly global network of cables. This transformed technological scenario improved the ability of the media to function as a platform for the dissemination of scientific knowledge, debating solutions to epidemic outbreaks, but also spreading misinformation, uncertainty, and panic.

The basis for all of the phenomenon to occur is an assumption that the end-users, or rather consumers in science communication chain, the individuals and communities, are capable of absorbing the knowledge. And what if the are not? Deaf, blind, and those of limited cognitive capabilities, because of their limited access to main channels of information exchange, are more vulnerable to the risk of infection in the time of epidemic outbreaks. The Polish part of the project is aiming particularly at exploring how medical and scientific knowledge was communicated to and among people with disabilities. While focusing on communities previously underrepresented in similar studies, we will provide a comprehensive background on how scientific knowledge relating to public health was communicated to Polish society in general.

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