British colonial personnel first recorded the history of the state of Gonja in northern Ghana at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, the Gonja explained the origin of the seven divisional chiefdoms of their territory by recounting how their founding father, Ndewura Jakpa, had traveled down from the Niger Bend in search og gold, becoming chief of the state after conquering its indigenous peoples, and placing his Hampshire seven sons as rulers of seven territorial divisions. Yet, when the history og Gonja was recorded again sixty years later, following some territorial shifts, the story of origin had changed Jakpa`s family, as told as that time by the Gonja, had shrunk to only five sons, coveniently matching the then currently matching the then current five territorial divisions. As anthropologist Jack Goody and literary historian Ian Watt (1963) claim, such "automatic adjustments"of history to existing social relations were accomplished relatively easily by nthe Gonja because they functioned within an oral rather than a written tradition .
Once the talk and memories of seven Jakpa sons faded, there were no written artifacts to contradict the new
narrative of five sons. The spread of writing in a culture, argue Goody and Watt , has " consequences" that cannot be reduced to the content of what is written. We human beings often distinguish ourselves from animals by pointing to the complex manner in which we communicate. Yet, most scholars have been hesitant to explore the intricate ways in which changes in the form of communication-such as the addition of writing to oral societies , the addition of printing to scribal socities , the addition of radio to print cultures, and the subsequent wide use of television , the internet, and other electronic media-may encourage new forms of social organization and undermine old ones.Even in the field of media studies itself , the primary focus has been on the safer and simpler view of media as relatively passive conduits that ndeliver "messages". Most media research has focused on topics such as how audiences prceive and respond to media content or how political and economic forces shape dominant media messages .
Content focused research has led to many significant findings , but it has ignored larger questions about the ways in which changes in media, apart from messages, may alter the textures and forms of social life. At the same time , individual scholars from a variety of fields-including history, anthropology, history studies, the classics, political economy, and legal studies -have tackled these larger questions. I have called their approach "medium theory" (Meyrowitz 1985:16;2009).I use the singular "medium"to highlight their focus on the distinct characteristics of each medium (or each type of media) and how those characteristics may encourage or constrain forms of interaction and social organization.
Medium theory can be divided into microlevel and macrolevel questions. Microlevel medium theory explores the consequences of the choice of one medium over another in a particular situation , such as initiating or ending a personal relationship , applying for a job , commanding troops , or interacting with one`s children . Macrolevel medium theory explores larger questions about the ways in which changes in media have influenced modes of thinkin, patterns of social organization, status differences, value systems, collective memory, and even the physical layout of the built environment. In this article , I provide a brief overview of the workof medium theorists. Then I ouline four major communication/cultural phases as conceived of by macrolevel medium theory. And, finally, I describe a few key limits of the medium-theory perspective.
The idea of studying media in themselves gained prominence in the 1960s with the publication of Marshall McLuhan`s The Gutenberg galaxy(1962) and Understanding Media(1994/1964(). McLuhan`s provocative puns and aphrisms hewlped to make him a media celebrity, with many
passionate adherents and many savage critics. Most scholars fell into the later camp. Indeed , the negative assessments of McLuhan`s style of argument and bold claims have, unfortunately, tended to diminish, rather than increase , scolarly work in this area.
The history of medium theory , however, is much deeper and broader than McLuhan`s work.Socrates (469-399 BC) was perhaps the earliest medium theorists. He argued that written communications were profoundly different from spoken ones. Writing, claimed Socrates, would alter human`s use of their memories, decrease interactive dialogue in favor of extended monologues , and lead to new forms of communication that were not tailored to specific local audiences. Socrates` negative assesment of these changes is mostly out of step withn Western thought concerning the positive virtues of literacy- That evaluative disjuncture, combined with the irony that Socrates` critiques of writing survive only because his most famous student, Plato, wrote them down in the Phaedrus, has tended to mute appreciation for the basic auuuracy of Socrates`descriptions of the differences between two forms communication.
About nineteen hundred years after Socrates`death, the inventor of printing based on movable type, Johannes Gutenberg, expressed awareness of how different printing was from writing and how the religious information monopoly of the Catholic Church was being threatened as a result, The slow copying of texts by religious scribes was so much for the speed and accuracy of the printing press. In the closing inscription for a religious
encyclopedia in 1460, Gutenberg boasted that it "has been printed and accomplished without the help of reed, stylus, or pen", that is, without the help of the Church`s scribes. Gutenberg also hinted that his own invention was operating in the service of God, "who often reveals to the lowly what he hides from the wise" (quoted in Steinberg 1974 :19). Gutenberg`s assesment of the potential impact of printing on the hierarchial control over religious information was made manifest by Martin Luther and his followers in the early sixteenth cetury. They employed the new communication technology to circulate the Bible and religious commentaries and critiques in the "lowly" languages of the people , thereby orchestrating the first mass-media public-relations campaign and splitting the Church through the Protestant Reformation.
In the nineteenth century, an implicit medium-theory perspective underlay the birth of the field of sociology, whose founders understood that the influences of machines of mass production (the " media") could not be reduced to an inventory of the products (the " content") produced. Rather, they argued , the new means of production had to be measured in terms of new forms of social relations, such as urbanization and bureaucratization. At the turn of the twentieth century , Scottish scientist and urban planner Patrick Geddes (1904) advanced the idea that interactionsbetween social processes and the environment (both natural and constructed) brought about social change. Lewis Mumford (1934), a disciple of Geddes, explored the impact and mythology of " the machine", including the impact of the printing press. In the 1930s, gestalt theorist and film enthusiast Rudolf Arnheim (1957) articulated a medium- theory argument to defend the motion picture as an art form against critics who said that film was merely a mechanical reproduction of reality. In his Materialtheorie, Arnheim argued that "artistic and sacientific", descriptions of reality.are cast in molds that derieve not so much from the subject matter itself as from the properties of the medium -or Material -employed"( 1957:2).
In the 1930s, Canadian political economist Harald Adams Innis began to explore how his research on the fur trade and on the pathways and waterways that shaped the flow of staples could be extended into an exploration of the flow of information through different media. Innis`interest in economic monopolies led him to theorize that the characteristics of some media (such as very complex writing systems) supported hierarchal control over information, whereas other media forms encouraged more egalitarian communication systems. He also argued that different media were biased toward either lasting for a long time ("time biased" media such as stone carvings) or travelling easily over great distances ("space biased"m edia such as papyrus and paper), and he linked these contrasting biases to the diffrences between cultures that maintained stability over time in limited territory and empires that controlled large territories but were less stable and long lasting . In two dense books written shortly before his death, Empire and communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis drew on these and similar insights to rewrite the history of civilization from the perspective of the impact of media on cultural forms.
Innis` theories of media were among the influences that led literary scholar and budding media theorist Marshall McLuhan to turn away from his analyses of advertising content (1951)to the study of media themselves. McLuhan played down Inni`s concerns with political power and monopolies, however, emphasising instead the idea that different media altered the balance of the senses and changed patterns of perception and thought .
Writing and printing , argued McLuhan , gave tribal people an "eye for an ear", in that writing emphasised the lineality of visual perspective over simultaneous , multisensory experience, Although McLuhan personally cherished literature, his dispassionate scholarly assesment was that electronic media were making print "obsolescent. He meant this not in the sense of ending book publishing or reading , but in the sense of electronic patterns undermining the "Gutenberg galaxy"o f print-inspired forms , such as linear thinking, nationalism, atandardization, fixed identity and narrowly defined"jobs", assembly line mass production and mass education , cause and effect thinking, and fragmentation of knowledge into distinct disciplines. McLuhan tried to embody the changes he envisioned by using non-linear "probes" and trans-disciplinary arguments to investigate media and cultural change. Such approaches did not sit well with many of the guardians of literate modes of thinking and academic disciplinarity. With his often misunderstood pun "the medium is the message,"he chided media researches for being too focused on media content and paying insufficient attention to the influences of each form of media, including the "change of scale or pace or pattern that it introd,ces into human affairs"(McLuhan1994 , 1964:8). In an electronic age , McLuhan argued , we often become "discarnate"b eings whose communications are increasingly disembodied. McLuhan also claimed that electronic media were "retribalizing" the new generation and encouraging humans
everywhere to become emotionally involved in affairs happening around the world in the electronically facilitated "global village"
Innis and McLuhan are unique in terms of their boldness of argument and the breadth of world history and human experience that they attempt to analyze. But many other scholars have offered more focused explorations of aspects of media evolution and cultural change. The shift from orality to literacy has been explored by J.C. Carothers(1959), Jack Goody and Jan Watt(1963), Eric Havelock(1963), and Walter Ong (1982).They suggest
that literacy fostered new forms of social organization , modes of consciousness, conceptions of "knowledge"and individuality. Robert Logan (1986)argues that the phonetic alphabet , more than other writing systems (and particularly when amplified through printing), encouraged the developement of abstract thinking that led to codified law, monotheism, formal, logic, and science-in short , the main hallmarksof Weastern civilazation.
H.J.Chaytor (1945) and Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979)have explored the consequences of the shift from script literacy . Chaytor arues that printing altered the psychological interaction of words and thought, created a new sense of "authorship"and intellectual property, reshaped literary style, and fostered the growth of nationalistic feelings. Eisenstein`s massive study of printing supports Chaytor`s claims and also presents detailed evidence and argument that the printing press revolutonized Western Europe by fecilitating the Protestant Reformation and the growth of modern science. The spread of electronic media has led to a surge of interest in medium theory. Building on his careful analyses of earlier communication shifts, Walter Ong (1967) argues that electronic media create a "secondery orality" that retrieves some aspects of the "primery orality"of preliterate societies , while also being distinct from all earlier forms of communication. Historian Daniel Boorstin (1973)compares and contrasts
technological revolutions with political revolutions, and he describes how electronic media level time and space and reshape conceptions of history, nationality, and progress by "mass producing the moment"and creating "repeatable"experiences. In my rolesystem version of medium theory(Meyrowwitz 1985), I argue that electronic media tend to reshape everyday behaviors associated with group identity, socialization , and hierarchy by undermining pront.era patterns of what different types of peopleknow about, and relative to, each other. Electronic media, I claim, foster changes in roles by providing more share d access to information, breaking down the distinction between our public and private spheres , and weakning the age-old connection between physical and social experience. Ethan Katsh (1989) details how electronic means of storing and processing information undermine ptint-era notiond of legal precedent and monopoly over legal knowledge. Digital media, according to Manuel Castelis (1996), feclitate the global dominance of "the network", an ancient form of connection that once could exist only on a small scale.In a medium theory approach to changes in international relations, Ronald Deibert (1997)reviews millennia of history to show how the "chance fitness"between the characteristics of a new medium and particular pre-existing social forces helped to bring those "media favored"processes from the margin of society to the center. Deibert then demonstrates how the era of hypermeditation is similarly facilitating major shifts in world order toward "de -territorialized communities , fragmented identities, transnasjonal corporations, and cyberspatial flows of finance"(1997;ix). Mark Poster(2006) scrutinizes the cultural consequences of the unprecedented relations between humans and information machines.Among the many scholars stydying the social ramifications of mobile media is Rich Ling (2008), who describes how mobile communications reshape the patterns of social cohesion and foster what he calls"bounded solidarity". In his New New media , Paul Levinson (2009) details how blogging, Wkipedia, You Tube, Facebook, and other media in which consumers are also producers are altering the texture of social and political life. This work extends Levinson`s (1997) earlier analyses of the ways in which the developement of new mediathroughout history has interacted with human decisionmakingand planning.
Although the above theorists would not necessarily consider themselves to be members of a common intellectual tradition , their work, when assembled into a single narrative , presents a surprisingly coherent and consistent view of the ways in which the use of various media of communication may contribute to large.scale cultural change. In the next section , I provide an outline of four communication/cultural phases as conceived of within medium theory . I have space here to present only broad sketches of each phase, stripped of nuance and qualification . Yet the general exercise offers a preliminary sense of the promises and challenges of this perspective.
In oral societies , sound and speech dominate as the forms of interaction. The culture`s hostory, philosophy, and mores must be stored in memory and conveyed orally, supported by embodied action , song , dance, and ritual. This living storage system and biological delivery process tie members closely with each other. To fecilitate memorization and transmission , cultural content is often put in the form of rhythmic poetry and mythic narratives that consist of familiar stories with formulaic actions and stock phrases. Because oral communication requires physical co-presence, oral cultures have few if any means of interacting with the experience or thinking of those who do not share the same time /space arena .Such societies are "conservative" in the sense of working hard to conserve what they already know are. People from the other places are perceived as profoundly "strange" . Moreover , the modern notion of the "individual" as the prime social unit has relatively little chance of developing . Members of the society tend to have very similar cultural xperiences and knowledge. Novel ideas and complex original arguments can gain little traction because such concepts are difficult to remember (even by the people eho develop them) and almost impossible to pass on to many others who have
no means beyond memory through which to store them. Indeed , extreme individual creativity would be potentially destructive force.
Because human beings naturally develop the abilities to utter and understand speech, oral societies have relatively few status distinctions which would require different sets of social information and experience. Nomadic oral societies are particularly egalitarian, since they have limited opportunities to separate people of different ages , genders, and other categories into different information systems based on physical segregation.
In oral agricultural societies , however , ties to locale make distinctions in status more feasible , since rudimentary separations of physical spheres allow for some segregation of male/female, child/adult, and leader /follower experiences and roles. Yet, even settled oral cultures find it difficult to isolate members into many different spheres. Children as a group can be partially separated from adults as a group , but year-by-year age distinctions are difficult to support. In oral societies, words are not objects to be viewed or held, but time-bound events,much like thunder or a scream. It is difficult for a person to escape spoken words and other sounds in the way that one can look away from visual objects. (Humans have eyelids, but not earlids, and sounds come from all directions, not just from in front of us.)The shapes of the built envoronment in oral societies tend to mimic these circular contours of
sound and hearing. In oral societies , both dwellings and villages are usually round. Oral peoples are always at the center of their communication world, with few opportunities or perpetual tools to stand back from it and analyze it.
The development of writing begins to change the structure of oral socities. Since writing is not a "natural" human ability , writing systems segregate those who can read and write from those who cannot. Different stages of mastery of writing and reading foster different levels of authority . Moreover, different types of writing systems have different influences. Writing systems that have many complex symbolssupport greater distinctions in status, whereas simpler writing systems encourage more egalitarian social roles. Additionally, pictgraphic writing systems (where each object or idea has its own "meaningful" symbol) sustain concrete thinking , whereas phonetic systems (wheremeaningless symbolsrepresent each sound ) tend to promote more abstract thinking. At first, writing is used to record what was previously only spoken (poetry, dialogue,formulaic myths, etc). In the long run , however , phoneticwriting in particular tends tobreak down the tribal cohesion of oral societies because it offers a relatively simple way to preseve prose and construct extended strings of connected abstract thoughts that would be almost impossible for oral peoples to develop , memorize, or transmit to others.
Writing splinters and unites people in new ways. As writing spreads , people who live in the same places begin to know and experience different things , while those who read the same material begin to feel connected to each other regardless of their locations . Yet,the complexity of learning to read and write, combined with the initial scarcity of written materials , means that fledgling literate modes of social organization compete wth powerful and enduring oral modes and have limited impact until the development of movable type and the printing press. Indeed , readers of early written texts have difficulty reading without speaking the words aloud.
Although the chinese developed the art of printing long before Gutenberg`s fifteenth century invention in Germany , the Chinese idegraphic writing system, with thousands of different characters needed even for basic literacy , retards the impact of printing in that culture. In the phonetically alphabetized West, however, the growing availability of printed materials helps to reorganize social structures based on new patterns of shared and unshared communication.Conceptons of "them"versus "us"change. Literate readers and writers engage with ideas that their illiterate neighbours (and their own young children) cannot hear, speak or remember , and different reders and writers develop different individual "perspectives". By allowing easy access to social information apart from face to face interaction, printing encourages retreat from the surrounding oral community and from extended kinship ties and greater isolation of the nuclear family. Yet, printing also bypasses the local community in the other direction with the development of larger intellectual, political , and religious units. The Protestant Reformation is facilitated by making the Bible and religious commentary and critique widely available in the vernacular, thereby bypassing the Catholic Church`s monopoly over direct access to the word of God and to the paths to eternal salvation. The new patterns of sharing and not sharing religious texts foster new patterns of religious unity across vast distances and eras , along with growing disunity among those in the same places at the same time. "Strangers"are increasingly predent in one`s own midst.
Printing in the vernacularalso permits readers to see on a printed page the larger "reality"of what were once onlylocal voices, and this encourages the development of nationalism. Readers feel an abstract unity with all those who share the same concrete local space. Connections based on face to face loyalties-such as feudal ties based on oral oaths-yield over time to nation-states based on printed constitutions and other political, social, and legal documents that literally "constitute" the shared conceptions, customs, and laws of the nation.
Unlike the verbal events of oral societies , printed texts encourage the experience of words as objects , spetially fixed on a page. In oral interaction , even a delay of a few seconds in response can seem rude and inappropriate. With print, in contrast , a readercan stare at words , read them at his or her own pace, turn away from them, and re-read them. Most significantly, a reader is able to think about words before forming a reaction to them. And formal written responses can be revised and self-censored multiple times before being shown to other people. Utterances, in contrast, cannot be taken back or erased. These characteristics of reading and writingfacilitate the growth of internal dialogue, introspection, and individualistc thinking. Moreover, literate parents`physical, social, and mental positions are no longer exclusively at the center of oral events: they can stand away from the communications of others and develop a more distant , refined, reflective, and individualized "point of view".
- Joshua Meyrowitz