Can you imagine a world in which the only means of communication were verbal speech and non-verbal gestures—a world in which there were no alphabetic letters, reading/writing, digital media, or other electronic means of sending messages to people? What effects on one’s communication and everyday life would result from not having such modern communication tools as we do today? The field of media ecology surveys world history, connecting changes in communication technology with other, much broader, changes in culture, including those in psychology, society, politics, and religion. In other words, as forms of communication change with the advances in technology, they have the potential to change entire cultures as well.
Communication technology has the power to restructure the consciousness of its users, impact thought processes, and influence patterns of behavior and beliefs. This occurs because each communication technology has different requirements and makes different demands on the user’s five senses. A culture’s predominant choice of communication technology will cause certain senses to rise to higher prominence in that culture’s interactive “ecosystem.” With this in mind, one is better prepared to begin to see some of the ramifications—both positive and negative—of using different kinds of communication technology.
We may begin by looking at cultures that wholly relied on sound for communication, i.e. those that operated without the phonetic alphabet. The alphabet is a major boundary because it constitutes a new way of communicating. It is a formal system of symbols that represents reality, and these symbols can be frozen in time, fixed in space. Of course, a general kind of “picture communication” can take place without the alphabet, but this is not the same as the logic behind the alphabet. Walter Ong suggests cultures that were exclusively dependent on sound for communication functioned differently than those that have access to the written word. Marshall McLuhan attributes this difference to the fact that oral cultures operated in a rich “acoustic space,” which he describes as organic and simultaneously integrative of all the five senses.
Furthermore, there was no “looking up” of facts nor “historical record” as modern civilizations know of it – instead there was an emphasis on the importance of an individual’s personal memory. The information that was put—or that could be put—in memorable mnemonic formulas was more likely to be retained and preserved. For the purposes of memorization and recall, one communicated primarily by way of themes, rather than specificity. This means that these kinds of early oral cultures exhibited different kinds of thought processes and organized knowledge differently than we do today – at least partly for reasons of utility.
During the second century B.C., a slow transition took place – at least among the scribal class of many cultures – from the primacy of orality to the primacy of literacy with the adoption of the alphabet. The alphabet marks a significant shift from the aural world to the visual world of representative symbols. These symbols can be repeated on a page, transported from one place to the other, and can communicate complicated abstract concepts. McLuhan comments: “The giving to man of an eye for an ear by phonetic literacy is, socially and politically, probably the most radical explosion that can occur in any social structure.” The use of script began to organize the thoughts of human beings differently than in previous cultures because it forced a different use of one’s personal senses. The change in delivery affected how one experienced and engaged with content that was communicated. As a result of these kinds of communication characteristics, human consciousness was transformed because the new technology had the advantage of imposing order and control of the world. It allowed for more precision in communication and clarity of expression, enabling the communication of certain types of content.
The next major communication technology change in history occurred when the printing press was invented. Of course, space does not allow for us to explore all of the corresponding consequences, but suffice it to say that Gutenberg’s invention not only changed communication patterns, but it also radically changed medieval culture. This technological change contributed to a disruption of traditional values and customs which eventually influenced other social changes to varying degrees in later centuries, including romanticism, nationalism, modern science, and industrialism. Elizabeth Eisenstein and other scholars have pointed out that new ideas emerged—such as repeatability, preservation, fixity—and that these infiltrated all areas of life, especially business and religion. Other consequences of the press included standardization, greater access to information, gains in personal knowledge, and the beginnings of literary source criticism. The press contributed to a shift in the culture toward individualism because it empowered individuals with new information which could be delivered directly to them in private settings. The book format became a new way knowledge was disseminated, and one’s knowledge became increasingly influenced and shaped by the form of the book.
In the last couple of centuries, there began a change from a print-oriented culture to a more image-oriented culture, particularly with the invention of the photograph in 1839, as images took on a new level of value and prominence in communication as a result of the invention. Additionally, there was a significant shift in communications at the end of the nineteenth century when an onslaught of new inventions began to influence larger segments of society, including the telegraph (1844), telephone (1876), and radio (1896). These built a foundation for other subsequent changes in communication to take place, especially the television (1950), internet, and various kinds of portable smart devices (2000s).
Even this brief survey shows the acceleration of new communication technologies – nearly 3000 years passed between the advent of writing and the printing press, but just a century passed between the motion picture (1885) and the internet (1990). We have experienced unprecedented levels of innovation in communication technology in the last couple of centuries. The increasing speed of technological innovation has not allowed for adequate time to process and study all of the many effects of it. More retrospective analysis is needed to determine the consequences of using new technology. Just as Gutenberg did not foresee all of the many consequences the printing press would have, do we find ourselves in a similar situation – not knowing all of the consequences of our new communication inventions? We often celebrate the gains and advantages of such new technology, but what may be more needed at this time is for us to consider what is lost or depreciated when we choose to use it.
Lee Marcum is a Senior Graphic Designer at a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in the Northeast.
Photo: FreeImages.com/gzed, FreeImages.com/Evan Earwicker.