The Psychology of Communication


5.6 Contribution To Media Studies And Students

History is mostly STORY - the HI is just to get your attention. So HI - now here's the STORY. Traditionally, history starts with our invention of writing rather than our acquisition of speech. Writing is more convenient (there are permanent records) but speaking is more meaningful. Since our pre-history has had a profound impact on our history, we should anchor history in pre-history.

Many people, to whom I described my plan to put history within a pre-historical context, recommended I read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies [DIAMOND]. When I finally read the book, I realized that they were telling me gently that it had already been done! Jared Diamond answered a question posed by his New Guinea friend, Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" by going back to pre-history to explore a complex of factors including food production, domestication of large animals, germs acquired from those animals, large populations, and central organization. It has indeed been done for traditional history based on conflict. Here it is done again for an alternative history based on communication.

History is usually the story of conflict as told by the winners.5 During a war between two groups in Egypt, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed; because of the outcome of a war in Turkey, scholars were forced to flee to Europe and thus trigger the Renaissance. Those two events are presented in traditional history as incidental by-products of the wars. In the history of communication, those events are the important events. The various wars are just footnotes about failures of communication.

Who remembers or cares that this gang of thugs captured that piece of land? The important effect on civilization was that a certain subset of the knowledge of the Greeks was preserved, which determined our view of them and the subsequent history based on their wisdom. The important issue between those two events is not which gangs gained which territories but who preserved this wisdom during the interval and how it was stored and transmitted to future generations. Cleopatra had lent many volumes of the books in the Alexandria Library to her lover, Mark Anthony, who had them copied and preserved in the Pergamon Library in Turkey.6 Such little-recorded facts are much more important than the well-documented wars that bracketed the destruction of the library in Alexandria and the flight of scholars from Istanbul.

H. G. Wells describes human history as "a race between education and catastrophe" [WELLS H]. Traditional history focuses on "catastrophe" with "education" as footnote; this history focuses on "education" with "catastrophe" as footnote. Well's metaphor of the race has been brilliantly rephrased in modern and empirical terms as an "ingenuity gap" between our problems and our capacity to solve them [HOMER-DIXON]. This book is my small contribution to closing that ingenuity gap.

Despite the argument that "the pen is mightier than the sword", history continues to tell the story of the sword. This is the story of the pen, penned in the hope that it will not be used to encourage conflict. It argues that the history of media is the Big Story of historical time. It tells how our species has dealt with the dramatic shifts from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural to an industrial to an information society by developing extrasomatic tools to store and transmit information outside our bodies.

How far back in pre-history should we go? Who made the Big Bang? Who heard it? There is merit in going back to the beginning, but perhaps not that far back. That was way before our time. We appeared only during the Pleistocene Era of the Quaternary Period in geological time (1,800,000 to 10,000 years ago). That is, we appeared on the global stage only in the fourth act. During that era, there was a more-recent but less-familiar Big Bang - not of the universe but of the brain. There was a sudden explosion of human creativity - cave paintings, ornaments buried with the dead, musical instruments - about 35,000 years ago. There are differences of opinion about the date, about the "suddenness" of the event, and about its cause. However, for us, it is important only to note that the breakthrough involved language.

Each period in genealogical time is divided into eras (see Figure 5-4). During the Pleistocene Era, two candidates were competing to be our ancestors - Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal. The former survived and evolved into us, whereas the latter became extinct. Neanderthal was bigger, faster, and stronger than Cro-Magnon but Cro-Magnon had a vocal apparatus which could emit a wider range of sounds, and thus a more sophisticated language. The Big Bang thus occurred in the Cro-Magnon brain but not in the Neanderthal brain. Communication was an important factor right from the beginning. History focuses on the Holocene Era (10,000 to the present) - that is, since the beginning of the agricultural society, when the hunter-gatherer settled down. However, during this Holocene Era, our species has extended itself by piggy-backing media on to language, acquired during the Pleistocene Era.

There are a number of advantages to starting our story with pre-history rather than with history.

  • A happy beginning. Traditionally, your individual biography starts with your birth rather than your conception. Just as in our collective biography (history), this choice is based on convenience. The date of birth is more convenient (it is easier to pinpoint) but the date of conception is more meaningful. That is when you received the conception-day gift of all the wisdom our species has acquired over thousands of years of survival in a harsh arena. Life does not have a happy ending. However, it has a happy beginning. You were born wise.
  • A firm foundation. In Chapter 10, I will argue that part of that gift is a means of storing information (memory) and a means of transmitting information (speech). Memory and speech is the firm foundation on which media history rests. The first generation of media is thus Memory and Speech. The history of media can best be considered as the story of how our species has extended the nervous system by storing information outside our bodies (Print and Film - Second Generation), by transmitting information outside our bodies (Telephone and Television - Third Generation), and by both storing and transmitting information outside our bodies (Multimedia and Internet - Fourth Generation).
  • A coherent story. What we know of the history of media tends to be a miscellaneous collection of facts and theories, anecdotes and opinions. Thus we read the anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell trying to build a device to aid his mother and his wife, who were both deaf, and accidentally inventing the telephone, which ironically he could never use to call his mother or his wife. We hear the anecdote about 14-year-old farm boy, Philo Taylor Farnsworth, basing the path of the television image on the back-and-forth path of his ploughing. Those stories fit within the framing story of the need for a means of transmitting information quickly over large distances as we moved into an industrial society. This in turn fits within the coherent story provided by the pre-historical context.
  • A consistent theory. Communication studies is a pre-paradigm discipline.7 That is, there is no broad framework, widely accepted by the scholars in the discipline, within which they work. This chapter aspires to provide such a broad framework by fitting media studies into perhaps the most widely-accepted paradigm of all - the theory of evolution. There is no generally accepted theory of history. There is, however, a theory of pre-history - the theory of evolution. Our species has co-invented social and media systems to survive in our changing cultural environment - agricultural society and the second generation of Print and Film, industrial society and the third generation of Telephone and Television, information society and the fourth generation of Multimedia and Internet. We have witnessed over the last ten thousand years of our evolution the unfolding of the human potential.
  • A long projection. It's not possible to move confidently into the future from a standing start (the present). Historian Arnold Toynbee uses the metaphor of trying to see yourself in a mirror with your nose pressed against it. You have to stand back to see clearly. We must go back into the past to take a long run at the future. Putting history into a pre-historical context provides an even longer projection to help us move confidently into the future with less fear and more hope [GARDINER 2006].

  • 5   Mark Russell, the political satirist, covered 1000 years of history in 10 minutes during his millennium presentation. How is this possible? He leaves out the wars.

    6   The fact that those books were there was one of the reasons why the scholars were there. Fortunately for us, Mark Anthony sent back the copies, with their inevitable errors, and kept the originals.

    7   Looking back now on the Summer 1983 issue of Journal of Communication, entitled “Ferment in the Field”, we can see that it was a Tempest in a Teacup [JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION]. The central issue could be whimsically reduced to the question of whether communication studies should be a branch of political science (critical studies) or of business administration (administrative studies). The threat of dissolving into another discipline, which has always haunted the field, is now replaced by the opportunity to be the central discipline in the academy.