Given that the first part of this topic may have seemed random without an introduction, I thought I’d explain why I have written these posts. Media ecology has been one of my fields of study, and as I was listening to lectures on “Reformed Worship in the Electronic Age” during my weekends of travel this month, I thought it would be fun to attempt to write a primer of sorts on media ecology. Also, now that I completed my degree, I feel the need to keep up my “academic” writing. It’s really more of a personal exercise, and will serve as a springboard (not to be confused with waterboard) if I ever get to teach a media ecology class in the future. So there you have it.
In the first part, I covered some definitions, showed how media are not neutral, and discussed how media change environments upon their introduction to such environments. In this post, I want to briefly go over the main historical media shifts; and in the third and final post, I will discuss how media actually shape us and our senses.
Media ecology divides history into technological eras. The earliest societies were dominated by orality, with culture, tradition, news, and facts passed on through the spoken word. Yes, the spoken word is a medium. Two main characteristics of this era are the epmhases on memory and authority. Memory was emphasized by default since nothing was written down, and since everyone could talk one had to know who could be trusted as authoritative.
With the invention of writing, manuscript culture started to take over from orality. Though the spoken word still dominated, political, religious, and civic life was affected by the ability to write. Literacy started to increase and memory started to decrease. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, vehemently opposed writing because he rightly thought that it would eliminate the need for sharp memory. What Socrates didn’t acknowledge, however, were the benefits of writing, which include the ability to develop complex arguments not feasible in an oral culture.
Around this same time came an incredibly important invention: the codex. Codices are pretty much what we think of as bound books. They replaced scrolls as the dominant written form and enabled a reader to more easily analyze the written work. Also, because codices allowed a reader to progress page by page, he could interact with material earlier or later in the book. This allows more reasoned, thoughtful interaction and also made writers more cognizant of a solid, unified argument from the first page to the last.
Though codices were greatly influential on reason, thought, and argumentation, the printing press revolutionized the world even more. Before the printing press, books had to be hand copied or hand stamped, making books so expensive that only the elite could own them. But with the ushering in of the typographic age, the common people could read books in their own language. This was one of the driving forces that fueled the Protestant Reformation – getting Bibles in the common tongue into the people’s hands thanks to the amazing power of the printing press.
For example, Martin Luther admitted to the pope that he did not intend his 95 Theses for mass distribution. But someone got hold of them, translated them, printed them, and distributed them throughout Europe. After his theses gained immense popularity, Luther started publishing profusely: In 1500, 40 German titles were published. This increased to 71 in 1518, with 20 published by Luther, 111 in 1519 (51 by Luther), 208 in 1520 (133 by Luther), and 498 in 1523 (180 by Luther). The typographic age, ushered in by the printing press, solved the problem of expensive books; established a widespread demand for the Bible translated into common languages; promoted new concepts of individualism, authority, nationalism, and privacy; and facilitated change in economics, government, and the church. It also had a profound effect in shifting communication bias from oral to visual.
The photographic era came next, and brought with it a shift to the image as primary. Images cannot communicate complex thought, though, as they cannot explain emotion or other non-visual ideas apart from language. A picture is really not worth a thousand words. There could be no gospel without language, for example. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – not the Image.
This photographic era partially overlapped the electronic era, in which we currently are living. Electronic media, beginning with the telegraph, represent a spacial bias. In other words, these media have conquered space by being able to transmit information across the globe in an instant. But they do not have a time bias like manuscript or typographic cultures, as information transmitted by electronic media is not made to last like books or tablets are. Further, electronic media have a tendency to trivialize information. I love this quotation from Henry David Thoreau about the invention of the telegraph because of its prophecy about the trivializing effects of electronic media:
“We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
The trivial is now communicated more than the profound merely because it can be. Because of electronic media, we have lost a sense of the significant in favor of the trivial. This is reflected in our news, our periodicals, our leisure, our communications, our worship, our music, and our relationships.
In the third and final part of this “introduction,” I’ll discuss how media actually shapes us like this.