Friday, October 8, 2021

The Beginning of the "New Media" Technological Revolution

Media technology has been around for longer than we might think. Historically, it has brought about a series of explosions in the scope and proliferation of capacities for communication. It is worth considering these events, and recalling the rapid, transformative impact they had on personal and social life. 

The original technological revolution in media evolved slowly for many centuries, until it "came together" within a particular social context and rapidly became a global phenomenon. Hundreds of years later, this form of media is so established that few people could imagine life without its pervasive presence and activity.

Human "extension" through communications media corresponds to the interactive nature of human persons with one another within the possibilities of their environment. We see this dynamic at work in a way that is complex and intricate yet seems almost "spontaneous" to the maturation of ordinary human life when we consider the use of languages, and their development and continuance in the various histories of human communities. I'm not sure if spoken languages fall under the category of "media," as they are so proximate and intimate to structures of human expression. At the same time, they are a system of sounds and gestures that we learn from others ("naturally" in the environment of our "mother tongue") so that we can express ourselves, discuss ideas, formulate conclusions, and reveal our intentions to one another.

More "mediation" occurs when we move one step "away" from spoken words and generate visual symbols to represent words and statements. There have been human communities that use elaborate spoken languages but have no written language, and - or course - for most of human history the written languages that did exist were only accessible to a very small percentage of the population. Yet this basic media form permitted human communication to extend itself through space and time. Ancient civilizations can "communicate" with us even today, insofar as we are able to comprehend the linguistic symbols they wrote and that have been passed on to us.

Writing was a delicate craft, that became more common and more influential along with the materials that made it easier and more durable - from chiseled stone tablets to more lightweight, portable, flexible materials like animal skins, bamboo, papyrus, etc. that could sustain and preserve long-lasting marks applied by natural staining agents, like ink. Writing enabled societies to have sophisticated legal systems, government networks, and more extensive trade. It also transformed stories and many forms of public discourse into a new thing: Literature.

Nevertheless, this had little impact on the daily life of the average (illiterate) person.

What was needed for writing to permeate the whole social communications environment was some method to multiply exponentially the copies of a written text. It seems that the needs and interests of societies played a significant role in the development of "writing technology." The Chinese invented paper sometime in the first millennium, and the (effective though also labor intensive) technique of wood block printing existed by the 7th century (early in the Tang Dynasty). Large scale reproduction and distribution of texts began, which may have had an impact by broadening the possibilities for more people to have access to the "literate class. " It also helped expand, unify, and render more efficient the Imperial bureaucracy of the Tang and Song dynasties, and it fostered the expansion of Buddhism through the distribution of translated Buddhist texts (both Chinese and Korean). Still, classical Chinese writing involved an erudite, exacting and aesthetically beautiful arrangement of over a hundred thousand ideograms. It produced an incomparably great tradition of poetry and literature, and was useful to communications specialists throughout society, but its complexity may have prevented it from becoming an expressive medium for ordinary people in the wider spectrum of life's circumstances.

The Song dynasty was overthrown finally by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, but printing continued. The Mongols - great invaders and destroyers, but also appropriators of the cultures that submitted to them - likely brought printing with them throughout their vast Empire. Chinese and Koreans had already pioneered movable type by this time. Marco Polo records his astonishment at the use of "paper money" throughout Kublai Khan's realms.

It's not unlikely that - via the Mongol invasions as well as the trade on the Silk Road - paper and print techniques spread from China and East Asia to the Islamic world and to Europe. Here printing met the phonetic-based alphabets, which not only had a peculiar simplicity; they also directly symbolized the "sounds" of speech, which implied that in principle anyone who could speak could learn to read and write without necessarily possessing the specialized erudition of Chinese scholars and bureaucrats. While Muslims were printing editions of the Qu'ran by the 14th century, we find in Europe at first a great deal of designs reproduced, and various accessory items like decks of cards. It was only when the desire for learning overflowed from the great medieval universities and extended to other social classes (i.e. the Renaissance) that Europeans felt the need for texts in a way that monastic and university copyists could not provide. 

It was inevitable that a spark would come to ignite the fire that would change the history of humanity. But the clever and tenacious goldsmith of Mainz - Johannes Gutenberg - probably didn't realize the enormous scope of the first "New Media" revolution that his "printing press" would initiate. Gutenberg refined movable type and combined it with the basic mechanical technology used for pressing grapes for  wine and olives for oil (thus the term "press" acquired a new meaning, and to this day it remains a central metaphor for print media). We know little about Gutenberg himself, other than the fact that he printed a famous Bible and died in 1468. But the fetters had been lifted from the printed word, and - as we say in the 21st century - it "went viral."

Pamphlets and books flooded Europe in the 16th century. Print and "publication" became a reality within the human environment, an available modality of communication within reach of everyone who could read (and unprecedented numbers of people learned to read). With the printed word came also a flood of ideas - good ideas and bad ideas - which is a whole story in itself, the volcanic story of change that set the stage for "the modern world" and for the emerging epoch of our time.

Digital technology has flipped us over to new audiovisual modes of communicating, but it has also expanded further the reach of print, or at least the "visual" presentation of print. The "image" is on the rise in today's modes of communication, but the original Media Revolution that filled the world with printed words and made us all readers and writers is not over yet. Indeed, digital image technology has facilitated the "virtual" crafting of typefaces of all kinds, accessible to anyone, that can appear on paper with the click of the print key.

Even though there is no paper edition of this blog, what I am writing here and now still draws on what Marshall McLuhan called "The Gutenberg Galaxy."

More on this topic coming soon....