Printer Friendly

Media and culture.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a new technology is introduced into a culture?

According to such writers as Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and others, graphic, filmic, and electornic media create different kinds of communications environments. New media impact on older media. Moreover, according to Innis and McLahan, communications media create environments that can be described in "economic" terms, e.g., supply and demand, pricing, monopolies, marketing, mass-production, standardization, interchangeability, technological extension.

For example, in Empire and Communication, economic historian Harold A. Innis )1950), commenting on "the effects of writing in shaping the intellectual, social, economic and political life of man," (McLuhan & Logan, 1977, p.373) writes:

The art of writing provided man with a transpersonal memory. Men were given an artifically extended and verifiable memory of objects and events not present to sight or recollection. Individuals applied their minds to symbols rather than things and went beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual reltions created within an enlarged time and space universe.... Writing enormously enhanced a capacity for abstract thinking.... Man's activities and powers were roughly extneded in proportion to the increased use and perfection of written records. (Pp. 10-11)

In The Bias of Communication, Innis (1951) suggests that "Western civilization has been profoundly influenced by communication and that marked changes in communications have had important implications" (p.3). Innis surveys in The Bias of Communication a broad range of communications media from roughly 4,000 B.C. (starting with clay, the stylus, and cuneiform script), to printing and radio. For each period he "attempted to trace the implications of the media for the character of knowledge and to suggest that a monopoly or an oligopoly of knowledge is built up to the point that equilibrium is disturbed" (pp.3-4). He also proposes that "Inventions in communication compel realignments in the monopoly or the oligopoly of knowledge" (p.4).

Throughout the work, there is constant reference to economic fundamentals, i.e., primary laws of supply and demand, the impact on media of communication and their ultimate reflection in the character of a particular culture. For example,

By the end of the fourteenth century the price of paper in Italy had declined to one-sixth the price of parchment. Linen rags were its chief cheap raw material. In the words of Henry Hallam, paper introduced "a revolution...of high importance, without which the art of writing would have been much less practiced, and the invention of printing less serviceable to mankind...." It "permitted the old costly material by which thought was transmitted to be superseded by a universal substance which was to facilitate the diffusion of the works of human intelligence." (P. 19)

Innis (1951) also makes reference to the "time" and "space" aspects of communications media:

A medium of communication has an important influence on the dissemination of knowledge over space and over time.... According to its characteristics it may be better suited to the dissemination of knowledge over time than over space, particularly if the medium is heavy and durable and not suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over space than over time, particularly if the medium is light and easily transported. The relative emphasis on time or space will imply a bias of significance to the culture in which it is imbedded. (P. 33)

Thus, in Innis' (1951, p. 156) terms, time represents a concern with history, tradition, and the growth of religious and hierarchical institutions. On the other hand, space implies the growth of empire, expansion, concern with the present, and secular political authority. Temporal culture is one of faith, afterlife, ceremony, and the moral order. Spatial culture is secular, scientific, materialistic, and unbounded (p. 156)

In his review of Innis' work, Daniel J. Czitrom (1982), in Media and the American Mind, states that "Obviously, in any culture both sets of values are operative, one dominantly and one recessively. Innis saw the rise and fall of civilizations, especially empires, in terms of a dialectic between competing monopolies of knowledge based on the temporal or spatial bias" (pp. 156-157).

In Explorations in Communication, an anthology derived from Explorations, a journal on communications published between 1943 and 1959, Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter (1960) "explored the grammers of such languages as print, the newspaper format and television" (p. ix). With regard to print, McLuhan and Carpenter point out:

The phonetic alphabet and all its derivatives stress a onething-at-a-time analytic awareness in perception. This intensity of analysis in achieved at the price of forcing all else in the field of perception into the subliminal. We win, as a result of this fragmenting of the field of perception and the breaking down of movement into static bits, a power of applied knowledge and technology unrivaled in human history. The price we pay is existing personally and socially in a state of almost total subliminal awareness.(P. xi)

By way of comparison,

Postliterate man's electronic media contract the world to a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything this is happening the minute it happens. Television gives this quality of simultaneity to events in the global villabe. (P. xi)

In "Classroom Without Walls," McLuhan (1960a) expands on the economically derived "monopoly" theme advanced by Innis by comparing the use of books in the classroom to other media, such as the press, magazines, film, and television with respect to the presumed typical role of books:

The sheer quality of information conveyed by press-magazines-film-TV-radio far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school instruction and texts. This challenge has destroyed the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid and cracked the very walls of the classroom so suddenly that we're confused, baffled. (P. 1)

The "standardization" issue is referenced by MccLuhan (1960) in "The Effect of the Printed Book on Language." According to McLuhan:

Print meant the possibility of uniform texts, grammars, and lexicons visually present to as many as asked for them. (P. 129)

The concept of "standardization" or "interchangeability" is further articulated by McLuhan (1960b) when he points out:

The explicit technology of written and especially printed codifications of language inherently favors any tendency to develop or utilize monosyllables as a source of new word formation. Everything we know about technology points to its natural bent for the replaceable part of the snug unit that can serve many roles. (P. 134)

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan (1962), expands on the concept that media, i.e., technology, tend to create new human environments. He writes:

Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike. (P. 8)

Here McLuhan proposes that technologies (communications media and otherwise) have a global impact on the culture or environment in which it is placed.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan (1964) refers to the space and time aspects of communications media. On the global level, McLuhan points out that after three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technolgies,

the Western world is imploding.... Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. (P. 3)

McLuhan also contends new media displace order media in various ways. In a chapter on "The Printed Word," he compares "printing" with "electric" information:

The book was the first teaching machine and also the first mass-produced commodity. In amplifying and extending the written word, typography revealed and greatly extended the structure writing. Today, with the cinema and the electronic speed-up information movement, the formal structure of the printed word, as of mechanism in general, stands forth like a branch washed up on the beach. (P. 174)

In effect,

A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them. (P. 174)

Later he says, "Once a new technology comes into a social miliue it cannot cease to permeate that milieu until every institution is saturated" (p. 177).

Coming full circle, McLuhan (1964) makes the connection between energy and production on the one hand, and information and learning on the other:

Marketing and consumption tend to become one with learning, enlightenment, and the intake of information. This is all part of the electronic implosion that now follows or succeeds the centuries of explosion and increasing specialism. The electronic age is literally one of illumination. Just as light is at once energy and information, so electronic automation unites production, consumption, and learning in an inextricable process. (P. 350)

The "economic" aspects of McLuhan's thinking, perhaps an extension oif Innis' professional orientation and influence, are also expressed in his statement that "technological media are staples or natural resources, exactly as are coal and cotton and oil" (p. 21).

McLuhan (1964) comments on technologies' power to seemingly create a demand for itself:

This power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent of technology being first an extension of our bodies and senses. When we are deprived of our sense of sight, the other senses take up the role of sight in some degree. But the need to use the senses that are available is as insistent as breathing -- a fact that makes sense of the urge to keep radio and TV going more or leass continously. (Pp. 67-68)

The "economic" aspects of technology are summarized by McLuhan as follows:

Many people have begun to look on the whole of society as a single unified machine for creating wealth.... But the peculiar and abstract manipulation of information as a means of creating wealth is no longer a monopoly of the stockbroker. It is now shared by every engineer and by the entire communications industries. With electricity as energizer and synchronizer, all aspects of production, consumption and organization became incidental to communications. The very idea of communication as interplay is inherent in the electrical, which combines both energy and information in its intensive manifold. (P. 354)

McLuhan continued to express his propositions in the 1967 work written with Quentin Fiore entitled The Medium Is the Massage, an obvious word play on his chapter "The Medium Is the Message" from the earlier Understanding Media. In this work, McLuhan reiterates an earlier "message":

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media which men communicate than by the content of the communication... The alphabeth and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encouraes unification and involvement. It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.(P. 8)


Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act -- the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change. (P. 41)

Another author, Eric Havelock (1976), in Origins of Western Literacy, discusses the relationship between the development of Western culture and the invention of the Greek alphabet.

Havelock contends that because of this visually symbolized "standardization" of oral communication (through the use of unambiguous and therefore efficient "letters" that distinguish between discrete vowels and consonants which, in turn, trigger instant recognition of discrete sounds), Western man was given greater freedom of novelty: science, industrialization, and the general democratization of knowledge. The effect of this new communication technology was to allow increasingly larger numbers of people to communicate in writing, that is, through the act of reading. Moreover, by using visual symbols to represent sounds at the level of phonemes (rather than one symbol to represent whole words, a person, place, or thing), the Greek alphabeth became an abstraction and allowed for greater manipulation of thought. Accordingly, the Greek alphabeth contributed industrial and scientific revolutions.

Neil Postman (1979), professor of media ecology at New York University, has also analyzed the structure of communication environments. In an article entitled "The Information Environment," he posits:

Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication which control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, messages networks, or media of communication; taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities that will emerge. (P. 234)

Further, he states:

the means by which people communicate comprise an environment just as real and influential as the terrain on which they live. And further: that when there occurs a radical shift in the structure of that environment this must be followed by changes in social organization, intellectual predispositions, and a sense of what is real and valuable. (P. 235)

In this article, Postman gives structure to the several properties of information. For example, he claims "Information, first and foremost, has form."

The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media-metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information. (Pp. 240-241)

Postman (1979) also points out that information has quantity (or magnitude) and speed (or velocity). With respect to the former, the question is: How much information is there? With respect to the latter, the question is: What kind of medium is involved? "It makes a difference in what we make of the world if information moves slowly, as in oral cultures, or at the speed of light, as in electronic cultures" (p. 241).

In addition, for Postman (1979) information has direction, and it is important to observe who has access to information in the culture. In effect,

Change the form of information, or its quantity, or speed, or direction, or accessibility, and some monopoly will be broken, soem ideology threatened, some pattern of authority will find itself without a foundation. (P. 248)

Technological Innovation and Diffusion

To answer the question of what happens when a new technology is introduced into a culture, it is also important to understand the process of diffusion and evolution of technological innovation. The process of diffusion of technological innovation is described by Alvin Toffler (1970) in Future Shock:

Technological innovation consists of three stages, linked together in a self-reinforcing cycle. First, there is the creative, feasible idea. Second, his practical application. Third, its diffusion through society. The process is completed, the loop closed, when the diffusion of technology embodying the new idea, in turn, helps generate new creative ideas. (P. 27)

Jean Gimpel (1976) in The Medieval Machine also proposes an evolutionary model of technology:

Technological progress is cyclical, as is most of history.... The cycles are dependent on the close relationship between the psychological drive of a social and its technological evolution.... In the era of growth the curves of psychological drive and technological evolution are parallel or the society would cease to progress. But as soon as the society reaches its maturity the curves stop rising and begin to converge. The psychological drive diminishes in intensity and begins a downward movement. In the declining era the technological evolution curve falls, though not rapidly, as that of the psychological drive, because aging societies continue to invest quite heavily in military technology. (P. 240)

The evoluntionary nature of technology and its impact on culture is similar in concept to that proposed for the development of science by Thomas S. Kuhn (1962) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this work Kuhn proposes scientific revolutions (which he defines as "the extraordinary episodes in which that shift of professional commitments occurs" (p. 6) occur in various stages.

The first stage is the so-called "pre-paradigm" stage characterized by "continual competition between a number of distinct views of nature" (p. 9) and "frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution" (pp. 47-48). The second state in the cycle is the "first paradigm" stage during which the first paradigm "is usually felt to account quite successfully for most of the observations and experiments easily accessible to that science's practitioners" (p. 28).

The next stage Kuhn (1962) calls the "emergence of anomaly" in which "nature somehow violates the paradigm-induced expectations" (p. 52). The emergence of a mounting number of "anomalies" results in "crisis" phase. Says Kuhn: "a crisis may end with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over the acceptance" (p. 84). Thus, the crisi stage is followed by the "new paradigm" stage during which several things occur; for example, "Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world" (p. 121). Further, Kuhn observes,

"though he may previously have employed them differently, much of his language and most of his laboratory instruments are still the same as they were before" (p. 129).

Kuhn's model of the "scientific revolution" has the "evolutionary" model concept in common with Toffler's view of the diffusion of technology and Gimpel's "technological progress" view of society. Kuhn's model also echoes those views of media and culture expressed by Innis and McLuhan. For example, Innis' discussion of "monopolies of knowledge" disturbed by the introduction of new media is echoed by Kuhn's idea of existing scientific paradigms challenged by the accumulation of anomalies that lead to crisi and finally a new paradigm. When Kuhn talks about scientists changing their perception of the world when new paradigms are evolved (even though the world has not changed), he reiterates in the "scientific" context what McLuhan (1964) discusses when the latter says: "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opionions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance" (p. 18).

The concept of equilibrium voiced by both Innis and McLuhan is expressed by Kuhn in the term "anomalies," i.e., a scientific paradigm (monopoly of knowledge) may exist for a time, but sooner or later anomalies appear and cause disequilibrium (crisis) which leads to the development of a new paradigm (a new monopoly of knowledge). McLuhan (1964) refers to the "translating" effects of technologies; i.e., "All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms" (p. 57). One cannot help but conclude that the development of new scientific instruments (technology) helped (or forced) scientist to deal with anomalies and cause the development of new paradigms: the telescope helped change our view of the universe and the church; the microscope, our perception of medicine and ourselves.

While the writings of Innis, McLuhan, Havelock, Postman, Gimpel, and Kuhan provided a framework in which to attempt to understand the impact of technology of technology and diffusion of technological innovation on culture, empirical studies provide another way of understanding to process.

Everett M. Rogers (1976), a leading writer in the field of technological diffusion, has pointed out,

[In 1976] there are over 2,700 publications about the diffusion of innovations, including about 1,800 empirical research reports and 900 other writings. The amount of scientific activity in investigating the diffusion of innovations has increased at an exponential rate (doubling almost every two years) since the revolutionary paradigm appeared 32 years ago, as Kuhn's (1962) theory of the growth of science would predict. (P.291)

Rogers, in Communication Technology (1986), also reports that "Tarde observed that the rate of adoption of a new idea usually followed an S-shaped curve over time: At first, only a few individuals adopt a new idea, then then rate of adoption spurts as a large number of individuals accept the innovation, and, finally, the adoption slackens as only a few individuals are left to adopt" (pp. 72-73).

Yet despite the extent of research in this area, another leading author in this field, Bela Gold (1981) claims:

it would seem desirable that future diffusion research concentrate more sharply on: identifying the effects of successive improvements on the technological capabilities and limitations of particular innovations. (P.269)


Based on an analysis of the writers cited, we can derive various observations that lead to implications regarding the introduction and diffusion of a new technology into a culture:

1. dominant media (technologies) create knowledge empires that ultimately go into disequilibrium;

2. technologies have a bias toward either time or space;

3. technologies create total environments that are not necessarily definable by the contenjt of the technology;

4. technologies create a demand for themselves;

5. a dominate technology creates organizational changes in a culture;

6. the diffusion of a technology into a culture takes time and the process is evolutionary;

7. the practitioners of a particular technology evolve their models (i.e., paradigms) of how a technology should be applied;

8. refinements of the technology refine the models of use on the part of the practitioners.

In sum, these eight principles can be applied to the historical development of various technologies and to their adoption and diffusion throughout a particular culture, and offer a means of judging the impact of these technologies on the culture they have saturated.


Carpenter, Edmund and Marshall McLuhan, eds., Exploration in Communication (Toronto: Beacon Press, 1960).

Czitrom, Daniel J., Media and the American Mind from Morse to McLuhan (The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

Gimpel, Jean, The Medieval Machines: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976).

Gold, Bela, Technological Diffusion in Industry, Journal of Industrial Economics 29 (March 1981):269.

Havelock, Eric A., Origins of Western Literacy (Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1976).

Innis, Harold A., Empire and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950).

--, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951).

Kuhn, Thomas S., The structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, No. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

McLuhan, Marshall, Classroom Without Walls, in Exploration in Communication, ed. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan (Toronto: Beacon Press, 1960a).

--, The Effect of the Printed Book on Language in Exploration in Communication, ed. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan (Toronto: Beacon Press, 1960b).

--, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

--, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1967).

McLuhan, Marshall and R. K. Logan, Alphabet, Mother of Invention, ETC., December 1977.

Postman, Neil, The Information Environment, ETC, Fall 1979.

Rogers, Everett M., New Product Adoption and Diffusion, The Journal of Consumer Research 2 (March 1976):291.

Rogers, Everett M., Communication Techology: The New Media in Society, The Free Press, New York, 1986.

Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock (New York: Bantam Books, 1970).



WELCOME TO ETC.'s second symposium on E-Prime -- not, one hopes, more of the same -- but, rather, a second drinking party (in Palto's original sense), featuring a quite different array of discursive libations, bracers, and chasers.

Some readers seem to have misunderstood the aims of the first symposium. Its participants did not endeavor to produce a simple verdict on E-Prime: a Yea or Nay; Thumbs up or thumbs down. Instead, that symposium continued this journal's tradition of investigating the potentials of purposive liguistic revision by focusing on the particular methodology of E-Prime. Certainly E-Prime merits extended examination, if only by virtue of the controversy it has engendered within (and recently outside of) general semantics circles.

Several questions seem to underlie much of the analysis in both syposia: (1) Does E-Prime enlarge and advance the discipline of general semantics? (2) Does E-Prime violate certain "canons" of general semantics? (The relation of general semantics to the canons of contemporary science and logic deserves, certainly, its own symposium.)

We may not have resolved these issues definitively these symposia, but we have made a start -- "Well thou hast begun" (Herrick).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Marlow, Eugene
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Using general semantics principles in the basic news reporting classroom.
Next Article:Do away with "to be" - there, pupils, lies the answer.

Related Articles
The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat.
Consuming children: Education-entertainment-advertising.
Whose side are they on? U.S. officials have accused Arab news network Al Jazeera of biased coverage. Are any media really objective in times of war?
Culture's growing conditions impact bacterial adhesion.
"European J. of Criminology" & "Crime, Media, Culture" from Sage Publications.
Effect of growth conditions on microbial adhesion.
Journal wins 22 awards from its peers.
The clay challenge continues ...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters