A Brief History of the Mass Media

The history of mass media is long and complex. It stretches back beyond the dawns of recorded history to the people that figured out that they could reach a larger audience through painting a picture on a cave wall than just by telling the story to whatever group happened to be present. While these distant mass communicators may not have been Homo sapiens sapiens, certainly they were human.

Humans are many things and the definition of what it means to be human is rarely, if ever, completely agreed upon within all schools of thought, however, one characteristic that defines humanness across all such definitions is the ability to communicate through the means of symbols, whether those symbols be words, pictures, or some other form of representation. As James Shreeve points out in The Neanderthal Enigma:

What was truly revolutionary about the Upper Paleolithic was not language, style or art, but the opening of the social conduits through which information of all such novel forms could flow.(Shreeve. p. 312).

Shreeve goes on to point out that cave art was probably designed to be a part of a ritual experience which was carefully planned and transmitted through the societies of the time. This magnificent leap may well have been the spark that lit the inferno that has led to today’s mass media.

The next great leap from representational pictures and art was to be able to express words or ideas clearly with written language. The invention of hieroglyphics and alphabets allowed more complex forms of information to be passed between individuals even if the individuals never actually encountered one another. Being humans, those who were able to control and use these tools used them to control and use their fellow human beings as well. Thus, this conversation which henceforth has been concerned with the idea of humans communicating meaning, moves into the more insidious realm of human beings utilizing power within human populations.

In The Media and Modernity, John B. Thompson dissects power into four distinct types. These are economic power, political power, coercive power, and symbolic power. The four are connected at multiple nodes, however, for the purpose of a less complex explanation, Thompson considers each in distinct form.

Economic power is that which controls material and financial resources in a society. Some examples of this in ascending order of influence would be farmers, merchants, bankers, and major financial institutions such as the Bretton Woods Institutions (the IMF, World Bank, etc.).

Political power is that which is concerned with authority and governance. While those with economic power are able to wield political power more easily than those without, for the purposes of this paper we will look at political power in a vacuum. The ascending order of power here might be citizen, council member, representative, senator, governor, and president.

Military power is that which uses physical and armed force. Military power falls within the realm of the coercive institutions such as prisons, police forces, sheriffs, national guard, and offensive militaries. Again, there is certainly a connection between this form of power and economic and political power. There is also a connection between all three and the final form of power Thompson discusses.

The final and one could argue, most powerful form of power is that which Thompson calls symbolic power. Symbolic power is the glue that binds the other forms of power to one another and to the people which form the basis of all power systems. Through schools, churches, and the media people are convinced that the individual power they possess should be given freely to those who wield economic, political, or coercive power in human societies. It is for this reason that the rise of mass media has also given rise to heretofore unknown levels of power among human societies.

The common factor necessary for such consolidation of control is a standardized and efficient means of production and distribution for the message that the media is to carry. In general there is a lag time between the communication and the reception of the message that mass media carries. By utilizing this factor, those utilizing mass communication means have been able to carry messages much further than the eyes of whoever might look upon a cave wall. Mass communication has managed to take this lag time and use it to transcend both time and space. This means that whatever message is being carried can reach people who are distant in geography or in time.

The next example of the mass media to carry this to a new level was the introduction of the scroll, book, or codec. By means of this often hand transcribed form, the dead were able to extend dominion over the living and the unborn came to be held in the thrall of the dying. Men were able to share their ideas with other men over the course of thousands of years and to give control in an economic, political, and coercive sense to whomever they might choose. An example of this might be the power wielded by the Vatican and the Catholic Church today being a result of the books hand-transcribed by the monks of more than a thousand years ago.

Through this process, the few are able to exert influence to overcome the resistance of the many. Through the power of the word transcribed and written some men were able to legitimize the illegitimate taking of individual power from other men. One example of this could be how the symbolic power of the media has been used to convince the poor that there is a separation between economic and military forms of power and thus keep them from rising up in arms when they realize that the two are actually one intertwined entity. Thus the symbolic form of power is used to tell the consumers of the media how to value and see the world.

By this process it is easy to see that communication on a mass scale is responsible for the building and defining of individual cultures. Culture, after all, is meaning that is shared. This shared meaning is exhibited through the mass media and thus it can be concluded that communication is not only communicating culture, but communication is in fact creating culture.

As one can imagine, things really began to kick up with the invention of the printing press and movable type. The first movable type was probably developed in Korea and China, but in 1439 Johannes Guttenberg created movable type in the Roman alphabet out of strong metal alloys. This combined with oil based ink opened the door to more people sharing the same ideas and thus sharing the same culture more than ever before. This new form of mass media spread throughout the world rapidly. One could argue that the ability to share how to move about the world rapidly in printed books, allowed the printed books themselves to travel more rapidly.

The rapid spread of information allowed the rapid consolidation of power and it is probably no coincidence that the number of people under the control of the various powers grew exponentially during this period. Through sharing culture and information, advances were made in an ever quickening pace. One of these was the creation of radio which Lewis Lapham describes in the introduction to Understanding Media by Marshal McLuhan as essential to the rise of Adolf Hitler and fascism in Nazi Germany:

…ascribing the existence of Nazi Germany to the match between the
medium of radio and Adolf Hitler’s political persona (a persona that would have failed utterly on television.) (Mcluhan. p. xvi)

Lapham goes on to explain how McLuhan has decoded why the media is always focused on the bad news.

Bad news engages the viewer’s participation in what McLuhan recognized as a collective surge of intense consciousness (a “process that makes the content of the item seem quite secondary”) and sets him up for the good news, which is much more expensively produced. A thirty-second television commercial sells for as much as $500,000 and can cost over $1 million to make; in Time magazine, a single page of color advertising costs roughly $125,000 (a sum equivalent to the annual salary paid to one of the magazine’s better writers), and McLuhan accurately accounts for the orders of priority by saying that the historians and archeologists one day will discover that the twentieth century’s commercial advertisements (like the stained-glass windows of fourteenth century cathedrals) offer the “richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”

This, I think, raises the central point of this paper which is to get the reader to question whether the media is the result of modernity or if modernity is the result of the media. This brings us to the point that McLuhan stresses throughout his text that the media is the message. The book is empire, the radio is fascism, the television is consumption, and what then, is the internet? Since most of the texts thus far pre-date the ideas of email, instant messaging, or cellular phones, it is left to the reader to make sense of what the message of this media is.

The rise of the media of the printed word led to a standardization of language, a shared sense of commercial value, and the sense that members of geographically distant people were still members of a virtual community that transcended both time and space. This led to the rise of Protestantism, the spread of mercantilism and early capitalism, and the sense that as human beings, all individuals were imbued with certain inalienable rights. These three factors played integral parts in the birth of the United States, modern democratic process, and the growth of human rights issues. With the introduction of the electronic media such as radio and television, individuals in widely separated parts of nations or the planet itself became aware of desires that they otherwise might have never imagined. With desire came the means to subvert populations to the will of those with agendas who were able to convince the masses that they were capable of fulfilling those desires. Enter totalitarian government, deceptive media, desire manipulation and the stage is set for the major problems that contributed to shaping the twentieth century. If ever there was a double edged sword, mass media would seem to be it.

Thompson breaks communication into three categories: face to face, mediated, and quasi-mediated. Face to face is between two people who are both present in the same time and space. Mediated is between individuals and/or groups and is separated by time and space, thus a media is needed such as letter writing or two way radio. Quasi-mediated interaction is communication that is directed one way rather than both ways. This would be the case of broadcast media and it is not subject to either time or space. The indication that it is two way communication is illusory in nature. By employing quasi-mediated communication to create culture and shape the thoughts of citizens, those in control of the mass media offer the illusion that it is actually a two way communication. This can be done through news tip hotlines, eyewitness accounts, and ‘independent’ oversight by regulating bodies that are supposed to be working in the public interest. One might suppose that even those working in the media are fooled by this ploy.

Today, things are more complicated. With the rise of cell phones, internet, and instant messaging; a face to face communication that is not dependent upon time and space has emerged. An eyewitness is not dependent upon the news reporter to tell what really happens in any situation. Take for example a bus accident. While the news media has been called and is enroute to the accident, a bystander has taken a video of the scene with his cell phone. He posts it to his blog using a cell phone/internet program such as flickr. Next he text messages/IMs his contacts using his cell phone and a cell/web interface such as twitter. Those who receive his text can look at the video and text him back with questions. By the time that the news media arrives, it is conceivable that huge numbers of human beings have been notified, seen the accident, and even been able to ask questions of the bystander. All of this is irregardless of time and space. This change from quasi-mediated to face to face communication of a different sort is most likely the next stage of human culture. We are in the beginning stages of it.

Because of the widespread dissemination of cellphones and the internet, it is easy to forget that both technologies are extremely young. As such, it is not likely that we, living in this society are able to focus the lens of history with any sort of clarity upon what effect these technologies are having or will have upon us in the future. It is easy to think that these are simply the latest things and as such are not terribly important, but we are not talking about fads such as hula hoops or video games. We are talking about communication. We are not just talking about communication, we are talking about mass communication. We are not just talking about mass communication, we are talking about mass power to shape the future of human culture. As shown earlier, communication really is culture and since we are looking at new forms of communication, there can be no doubt that we are looking at new forms of utilizing power, new forms of controlling individuals, and new forms of shaping the human culture to come.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Mass Media

Leave a Reply