Media in History
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Media in History

An Introduction to the Meanings and Transformations of Communication over Time

Jukka Kortti

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eBook - ePub

Media in History

An Introduction to the Meanings and Transformations of Communication over Time

Jukka Kortti

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About This Book

Since media is omnipresent in our lives, it is crucial to understand the complex means and dimensions of media in history, and how we have arrived at the current digital culture. Media in History addresses the increasing multidisciplinary need to comprehend the meanings and significances of media development through a variety of different approaches. Providing a concise, accessible and analytical synthesis of the history of communications, from the evolution of language to the growth of social media, this book also stresses the importance of understanding wider social and cultural contexts. Although technological innovations have created and shaped media, Kortti examines how politics and the economy are central to the development of communication. Media in History will benefit undergraduate and graduate history and media studies students who want to understand the complex structures of media as a historical continuum and to reflect on their own experiences with that development.

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Information

Year
2019
ISBN
9781350307087
Edition
1
PART I THE DEVELOPMENT OF MEDIA
Part I comprises a short chronological overview of media history. It is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the history of media, but rather an introduction to the thematic chapters in Part II. The media-technological innovations, their innovators or the dates of patents, for instance, are not crucial, but the purpose of the overviews is to pick up certain selective features of the role of media in history.
Chapter 1, ‘From Speech to Print’, tells how human communication has developed in the history of humankind: from orality to literacy, the significance of religious communication, from chirographic to typographic culture, ‘the revolution’ of the printing press, and the birth of the press.
Chapter 2, ‘The Birth of New Media’, deals predominantly with the technological innovations of the nineteenth century: telegraph, telephone, gramophone, radio, photography and cinema.
Chapter 3, ‘Media for the Masses’, recounts the birth of mass media: the popular press, modern advertising, Hollywood and broadcasting.
Chapter 4, ‘In the Global Village’, focuses on media history after the Second World War: television culture (satellites, cable and video) and digital media culture (computer games, the internet and social media).
After reading Part I, the reader will be aware of the main phases and milestones of media history. He or she will be able to see the long evolution of media and the transformations of communication from speech to bits.
1 From Speech to Print
The beginning of the history of media may be placed at the invention of the alphabet around the year 2000 BCE, as early as the development of writing around 5,000 years ago, or the development of language before that. Media were already important in ancient cultures. Many materials were used in communication, such as parchment, clay and stone, and later papyrus and paper. In the later modern era, elements that similarly influenced communication included steam, electricity and plastic. As materials became lighter, communication grew more efficient. Often those who used ancient ‘media’ also had a monopoly on knowledge.
We must also not forget religious communication, which has played a crucial role as a visual medium for millennia. This mostly applies to Christianity, however, as the use of images in mosques and synagogues in Islam and Judaism has been scarce. Since the literacy of the so-called common folk is a relatively recent development in world history, for millennia the average person has formed his or her worldview through religious sculptures, mosaics and paintings. Also, before the Reformation, religious texts were often written in Latin. Medieval cathedrals in particular have functioned as a strong form of communication, and the events of the Bible have been narrated to the faithful in the form of images (icons) and sculptures. Up until medieval times, art was largely didactic, or educational. Pictures taught people everything that was important about the history of creation, religious dogmas, saints and virtues.
Churches, medieval cathedrals in particular, have also acted as media spectacles where pictures, words and music have formed a multimedia experience. The term ‘multimedia’ was established along with digital culture when people began combining text, sound, pictures, video and animation using computers. Before modern media, spectacles of course existed outside religious communication as well. One important form of communication in Europe has been various public rituals, such as parades, plays and coronations, royal weddings and funerals. Royal weddings and funerals in particular have been and still are important media spectacles, if we look at things like European royal weddings in the 2010s or the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
Communication has at times acted as a crucial factor in the development of humankind. Some media theorists have even looked at the entire history of civilization from the point of view of the history of media, such as Harold A. Innis in his influential works Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication.1 Media manifest ‘the extensions of man’, to quote Marshall McLuhan,2 who continued Innis’s work.
WORDS INTO TEXTS
Ancient Greece has traditionally been considered the birthplace of Western civilization and Europeanness. Although writing had been invented about 2,500 years earlier, speech was the most important medium in the Hellenic culture. During its classical era (480–330 BCE), foundations were laid for things like Western philosophy, whose progenitor Socrates (circa 470–399 BCE) based his thoughts and actions on speech. However, the dialectical method of questions and teaching he used has been passed on to posterity through the writings of his students, such as the philosopher Plato. Although Plato was a skilled writer, he was opposed to writing. To Plato, like his master Socrates, dialectics was the basis of reason. Plato believed that writing destroyed memory. The same argument has been used with digital culture – how computers and mobile devices reduce the need to exercise memory when everything is always readily available somewhere. Plato also raised the issue of how writing, unlike speech, is unable to defend itself or correct misunder-standings. Socrates has been seen as the first media theorist and Plato as the first media critic.3 Although this was the era of the manuscript or chirographic culture, rhetoric was valued above all and speech still held a primary role in communication between people. By this point, a transformation had taken place in the history of information from pictographic, or writing the picture, through ideographic, or writing the idea, into logographic, or writing the word.4
Ever since modern man, Homo sapiens, began to form complex words and phrases using their developed vocal anatomy, the culture of speech or oral culture dominated communication between people. The development of language formed a basis for development: humanity became human. Speech was humanity’s only ‘media’ for over 150,000 years. It has been suggested that speech developed during human evolution primarily to facilitate collaboration. In the development of primitive humans, brain size correlated with group size, so that as the brain developed groups grew in size. There were also more males in these groups, because as communication developed females were able to trust males more. This facilitated the transfer of genes that were beneficial for evolution. Communication became valuable. Words could be used to instantly sway others, obtain status and also communicate unusual things, anomalies.
In the era of oral culture, people’s livelihoods were based on hunting and gathering. Speech allowed not only precise communication to others regarding things like obtaining food, but also the processing of things on an abstract level using symbols. Humans may indeed be called ‘the symbolic animal’, referring to the phrase by German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945).5 As vocabulary developed, so too did conceptual thinking, our perception of the past, the future and the world outside our physical senses. Through language, man also became self-conscious. Many philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), have emphasized the primacy of speech for thought, and that the barriers of language are equivalent to the barriers of the world. Language also provided an opportunity for sharing emotions and ideas, which allowed the development of various complex strategies and tactics. The development of speech may have played a key factor in Homo sapiens becoming the dominant and soon also the only species of human about 30,000 years ago. When the species began to spread from its ancestral home in Africa around the world, speech helped it survive the changes in climate, terrain, fauna and flora that took place particularly during the last Ice Age (35,000–10,000 BCE).
In oral culture, things were preserved in memory and transmitted to new generations in repeatable rhythmical and metric stories and songs that included imagery and metaphors. This helped sustain culture through the ages. Myths have been preserved mainly because they have been passed down the generations as oral poems and songs. They would not have survived to this day on a large scale, however, had they not been written down once in the form of mythology. Such myths include Homer’s The Odyssey, the Icelandic sagas and the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic that was an influential book for J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Lord of the Rings. Oral culture is indeed often traditional and conservative in its effort to preserve culture. This can also be seen in religious texts like the Bible or the Quran.
Stories vary according to their narrator, however, and speech about the past is tied to the present – the way in which the narrator formulates his or her speech. In addition, speech is bound to a place and a situation and changes, unlike writing. Writing began to develop after humans began to draw. The earliest surviving evidence, such as cave paintings, drawings and cliff carvings, are about 40,000–50,000 years old. Gradually, pictures began to develop into pictograms. As networking village communities began to replace hunter-gatherer communities, a need arose for more precise communication. Agriculture developed around 9000 BCE in the wet plains and hills of what is called the Fertile Crescent (present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine).6 Writing was developed first and foremost to serve the needs of government: that is, for taxation and accounting. During its development, people did not think that writing would be used to transmit poems, letters and stories, or that literacy would become an aid for human thought. Writing also launched humans from the prehistorical era to the pages of history: history ‘begins’ with written history.
The relationship between speech and writing is interactive and multidimensional. According to the Canadian literary theorist and cognitive researcher David Olson, reading and writing have shaped the way we think about language, the mind and the world. In particular, Olson discusses the relationship between speech and writing: the way in which writing, after its invention, has created a model for speech.7 Harold A. Innis, also from Canada,8 has said that writing greatly expanded humanity’s capability for abstract thought. As written culture developed, human mentality also changed and new opportunities developed for intellectual thought.9
Various writing methods, such as hieroglyphs and cuneiform, had been used by Sumerians and Egyptians as early as the early Bronze Age around 4000–3000 BCE. The invention of writing, or rather the reproduction and preservation of spoken language, was influenced not only by drawings and paintings, but also by tally stones, which served trade in ancient agricultural societies. There is evidence of the earliest tally stones dating back to around 8500 BCE. Tally stones were small triangular, round or conical objects of clay that represented an animal, a measure of grain, pots of oil or other trade goods. These marks or tokens carried meanings.
The next step, around 3700 BCE, was the replacement of these marks with hollow balls of clay that acted as envelopes of a kind. To identify the contents without having to break the ball, the Sumerians first depicted the contents of the ball on it as such, and later scrawled some kind of representation of the contents onto its surface. As representation became increasingly abstract, the objects no longer needed an actual content, and the ball could be transformed into a tablet. These objects also became status symbols, which is why they have been preserved in tombs. Around 3100 BCE, the Sumerians developed numbers to depict things like a quantity of sheep, and so writing and mathematics are considered to have developed at the same time, although mathematics only became possible after the invention of writing.
With the development of agriculture, village societies developed into cities and began to trade with one another, which required communication for things like measurement and calculating quantity. In addition, the clergy gained power and began to influence secular laws in addition to religious ones. The most famous of these laws is the Code of Hammurabi, whose nearly 300 laws were carved in stone at public places around 1700 BCE. The Babylonians developed the phonetic script of their predecessors the Sumerians by turning it into a standard that could be used to rule an empire.
The method of writing developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia10 was also adopted in Egypt. It is not known for certain, however, how writing came to Egypt. The idea of mimicking is supported by the fact that the written Egyptian language appeared at once, as opposed to developing gradually like the Sumerian pictograms. Writing was also developed independently by the native peoples of Mexico around 600 BCE, and possibly also by the Chinese by around 1300 BCE.
The writing of the Egyptians is known through hieroglyphs discovered in tombs. It was developed by priests for religious purposes, but there was also a secular, everyday version of the script for accounting and correspondence. Although the Egyptians slightly expanded the use of writing as a form of communication between communities, it remained a rather complex skill mastered by the few. Hieroglyphic script has been deciphered largely with the aid of the Rosetta Stone11 that had the same text written in three languages: ancient Greek, ancient Egyptian and hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone has become a metaphor for solving a difficult problem. Writing is, in a sense, a cipher if it cannot be read. Writing is in fact technology,12 even though it may not feel that way to those of us who have internalized it. Yet writing technology utilizes tools and equipment including paper, pens, brushes and ink or a word processor, mouse, keyboard and printer. Writing enables the preservation of things in an external memory and the transmission of a message across time and distance. Writing allows a message to be delivered to its destination secretly and in authentic form. In a sense, the information is removed from the speaker, which changes the concept of information. Writing has also enabled discourse about discourse, where written language itself is an object of interest.13
In historical research, however, writing has not been seen merely as a ‘technologizer of the word’ that has enabled the change and development of societies. Instead of deterministic generalizations, efforts have been made to study writing as part of complex societal, social and cultural contexts, where development has not necessarily been that straightforward. The linguistic turn14 starting in the 1970s has also influenced views in historical research on how linguistic communication affects the mentality of human communities. According to this view, language plays a crucial part in how societies have formed. This view posits that societal processes have not been deterministic, but are the results of cultural communication. For example, the American Jesuit priest and literary scholar Walter J. Ong15 has said that besides its role in the development of abstract thinking, writing strengthened the position of the Church in people’s lives.
Writing is a power technology. It ‘enables remote control over people and property but also time and place’, as media philosopher John Durham Peters puts it.16 The American evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond17 considers writing to be a key tool of modern society together with arms, microbes and a centralized political system. He emphasizes the way in which writing has spread either through a blueprint – by copying or conversion into another form of writing – or by adopting writing in the form of the spreading of ideas or internalization of an idea, where the details have been developed independently. The Romans are an example of the former type of culture and the Egyptians (probably) of the latter. Moreover, the development of food production was a precondition for the development of writing. Yet not all food-producing societies that have also had complex political systems developed writing. For example, in the empire of the South American Incas, one of the largest empires in the world in the sixteenth century, writing was unknown.
THE MANUSCRIPT CULTURE
Hieroglyphic writing was a mixture of picture (pictograms) and phonetic signs (phonograms). The actual phonetic alphabet was de...

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