Media through the ages

The 20th century was witness to the birth of what is arguably the most popular device in the history of mankind: the television. TV is a communications technology that has revolutionised the delivery of information, entertainment and artistic expression to the masses. More recently, we have all witnessed (and participated in) the birth of the Internet, a technology whose potential makes TV pale into insignificance in comparison (although, it seems, TV isn't leaving us anytime soon). These are fast-paced and momentous times we live in. I thought now would be a good opportunity to take a journey back through the ages, and to explore the forms of (and devices for) media and communication throughout human history.

Our journey begins in prehistoric times, (arguably) before man even existed in the exact modern anatomical form that all humans exhibit today. It is believed that modern homo sapiens emerged as a distinct genetic species approximately 200,000 years ago, and it is therefore no coincidence that my search for the oldest known evidence of meaningful human communication also brought me to examine this time period. Evidence suggests that at around this time, humans began to transmit and record information in rock carvings. These are also considered the oldest form of human artistic expression on the planet.

From that time onwards, it's been an ever-accelerating roller-coaster ride of progress, from prehistoric forms of media such as cave painting and sculpture, through to key discoveries such as writing and paper in the ancient world, and reaching an explosion of information generation and distribution in the Renaissance, with the invention of the printing press in 1450AD. Finally, the modern era of the past two centuries has accelerated the pace to dizzying levels, beginning with the invention of the photograph and the invention of the telegraph in the early 19th century, and culminating (thus far) with mobile phones and the Internet at the end of the 20th century.

List of communication milestones

I've done some research in this area, and I've compiled a list of what I believe are the most significant forms of communication or devices for communication throughout human history. You can see my list in the table below. I've also applied some categorisation to each item in the list, and I'll discuss that categorisation shortly.

Prehistoric (200,000 BC - 4,000 BC)

Name Year Directionality Preservation
rock carving c. 200,000 BC down permanent
song, music and dance between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down or up or lateral transient
language and oration between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down or up or lateral transient
body art between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down or up or lateral transient
jewellery between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down or up or lateral permanent
mythology between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down transient
cave painting and visual symbols between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down permanent
sculpture between 100,000 BC and 30,000 BC down permanent
pottery c. 14,000 BC down permanent
megalithic architecture c. 4000 BC down permanent

Ancient (3000 BC - 100 AD)

Name Year Directionality Preservation
writing c. 3000 BC down permanent
metallurgical art and bronze sculpture c. 3000 BC down permanent
alphabet c. 2000 BC down permanent
drama c. 500 BC down or up or lateral transient
paper c. 100 AD down permanent

Renaissance (1450 AD - 1620)

Name Year Directionality Preservation
printing press 1450 AD down permanent
printed books c. 1500 down permanent
newspapers and magazines c. 1620 down permanent

Modern (1839 - present)

Name Year Directionality Preservation
photograph 1839 down or up or lateral permanent
telegraph 1844 lateral permanent
telephone 1876 lateral transient
phonograph (gramophone) 1877 down permanent
movie camera 1891 down or up or lateral permanent
film 1894 down permanent
radio 1906 down permanent
television 1936 down permanent
videotape 1958 down or up or lateral permanent
cassette tape 1964 down or up or lateral permanent
personal computer 1973 down or up or lateral permanent
compact disc 1983 down permanent
mobile phone 1991 lateral transient
internet 1992 down or up or lateral permanent

Note: pre-modern dates are approximations only, and are based on the approximations of authoritative sources. For modern dates, I have tried to give the date that the device first became available to (and first started to be used by) the general public, rather than the date the device was invented.

Directionality and preservation

My categorisation system in the list above is loosely based on coolscorpio's types of communication. However, I have used the word "directionality" to refer to his "downward, upward and lateral communication"; and I have used the word "preservation" and the terms "transient and permanent" to refer to his "oral and written communication", as I needed terms more generic than "oral and written" for my data set.

Preservation of information is something that we've been thinking about as a species for an awfully long time. We've been able to record information in a permanent, durable form, more-or-less for as long as the human race has existed. Indeed, if early humans hadn't found a way to permanently preserve information, then we'd have very little evidence of their being able to conduct advanced communication at all.

Since the invention of writing, permanent preservation of information has become increasingly widespread*. However, oral language has always been our richest and our most potent form of communication, and it hasn't been until modern times that we've finally discovered ways of capturing it; and even to this very day, our favourite modern oral communication technology — the telephone — remains essentially transient and preserves no record of what passes through it.

Directionality of communication has three forms: from a small group of people (often at the "top") down to a larger group (at the "bottom"); from a large group up to a small one; and between any small groups in society laterally. Human history has been an endless struggle between authority and the masses, and that struggle is reflected in the history of human communication: those at the top have always pushed for the dominance of "down" technologies, while those at the bottom have always resisted, and have instead advocated for more neutral technologies. From looking at the list above, we can see that the dominant communications technologies of the time have had no small effect on the strength of freedom vs authority of the time.

Prehistoric human society was quite balanced in this regard. There were a number of powerful forms of media that only those at the top (i.e. chiefs, warlords) had practical access to. These were typically the more permanent forms of media, such as the paintings on the cave walls. However, oral communication was really the most important media of the time, and it was equally accessible to all members of society. Additionally, societies were generally grouped into relatively small tribes and clans, leaving less room for layers of authority between the top and bottom ranks.

The ancient world — the dawn of human "civilisation" — changed all this. This era brought about three key communications media that were particularly well-suited to a "down" directionality, and hence to empowering authority above the common populace: megalithic architecture (technically pre-ancient, but only just); metallurgy; and writing. Megalithic architecture allowed kings and Pharoahs to send a message to the world, a message that would endure the sands of time; but it was hardly a media accessible to all, as it required armies of labourers, teams of designers and engineers, as well as hordes of natural and mineral resources. Similarly, metallurgy's barrier to access was the skilled labour and the mineral resources required to produce it. Writing, today considered the great enabler of access to information and of global equality, was in the ancient world anything but that, because all but the supreme elite were illiterate, and the governments of the day wanted nothing more but to maintain that status quo.

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1450 AD is generally considered to be the most important milestone in the history of human communication. Most view it purely from a positive perspective: it helped spread literacy to the masses; and it allowed for the spread of knowledge as never before. However, the printing press was clearly a "down" technology in terms of directionality, and this should not be overlooked. To this very day, access to mass printing and distribution services is a privilege available only to those at the very top of society, and it is a privilege that has been consistently used as a means of population control and propaganda. Don't get me wrong, I agree with the general consensus that the positive effects of the printing press far outweigh its downside, and I must also stress that the printing press was an essential step in the right direction towards technologies with more neutral directionality. But essentially, the printing press — the key device that led to the dawn of the Renaissance — only served to further entrench the iron fist of authority that saw its birth in the ancient world.

Modern media technology has been very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, there have been some truly direction-neutral communication tools that are now accessible to all, with photography, video-recording, and sound-recording technologies being the most prominent examples. There is even one device that is possibly the only pure lateral-only communication tool in the history of the world, and it's also become one of the most successful and widespread tools in history: the telephone. On the flip side, however, the modern world's two most successful devices are also the most sinister, most potent "down" directionality devices that humanity has ever seen: TV and radio.

The television (along with film and the cinema, which is also a "down" form of media) is the defining symbol of the 20th century, and it's still going strong into the 21st. Unfortunately, the television is also the ultimate device allowing one-way communication from those at the top of society, to those at the bottom. By its very definition, television is "broadcast" from the networks to the masses; and it's quite literally impossible for it to allow those at the receiving end to have their voices heard. What the Pyramids set in stone before the ancient masses, and what the Gutenberg bibles stamped in ink before the medieval hordes, the television has now burned into the minds of at least three modern generations.

The Internet, as you should all know by now, is changing everything. However, the Internet is also still in its infancy, and the Internet's fate in determining the directionality of communication into the next century is still unclear. At the moment, things look very positive. The Internet is the most accessible and the most powerful direction-neutral technology the world has ever seen. Blogging (what I'm doing right now!) is perhaps the first pure "up" directionality technology in the history of mankind, and if so, then I feel privileged to be able to use it.

The Internet allows a random citizen to broadcast a message to the world, for all eternity, in about 0.001% of the time that it took a king of the ancient world to deliver a message to all the subjects of his kingdom. I think That's Cool™. But the question is: when every little person on the planet is broadcasting information to the whole world, who does everyone actually listen to? Sure, there are literally millions of personal blogs out there, much like this one; and anyone can look at any of them, with just the click of a button, now or 50 years from now (50 years… at least, that's the plan). But even in an information ecosystem such as this, it hasn't taken long for the vast majority of people to shut out all sources of information, save for a select few. And before we know it — and without even a drop of blood being shed in protest — we're back to 1450 AD all over again.

It's a big 'Net out there, people. Explore it.

* Note: I've listed television and radio as being "permanent" preservation technologies, because even though the act of broadcasting is transient, the vast majority of television and radio transmissions throughout modern times have been recorded and formally archived.

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