Tq Antiqueno

Nov 29, 2021

11 min read

The four Media eras that made us who we are

How media affects culture: an explanation in a few parts

I’m warming up to waste another 2 years not completing my graduate thesis. So to prepare, here’s a series on a rewriting of a paper I wrote in 2015 for my coursework originally published here. (It’s not very good.) It’s been six years since this paper so I thought about revisiting and updating the examples, fix some grammar and composition errors and make the language less academic in some way. If you wish to read this in its full original error-filled glory, go to the link above. Otherwise, please enjoy this version. I personally like this one better.

The cover of my paper featuring my rubber cut print

Here, I want to share a summary of my readings and analysis of how our culture is shaped by the media that we consume. I will be using different theories to analyze the past, explain the present, try to forecast the future, and propose how practitioners of Communications can respond. I put the theories I used as lenses under each section’s title and link them to an external source if you wish to read a bit more about them.

The Natural and Communication Environments

Key theory: Media Ecology by Marshal McLuhan and Neil Postman

Marshall McLuhan proposed that we live in two different but connected worlds. The first one is the Physical — our planet, country, your houses, your neighborhood and everything else you can sense around you. The second one is our Media environment. This is all the different media and platforms we live in today. TV, radio, social networking sites, mobile apps, and more — all these form another world we exist in.

The physical environment (teal) and the media environment (red)

To make this idea a bit clearer: wherever you are reading this from, you live in a different Physical environment from a person living in India but you may be living in the same Media environment. You are in two totally different locations with totally different situations but you can be surrounded by the same set of media — connecting with friends on Facebook, searching for information using Google, and listening to the same songs through Spotify or Apple Music (really?). The Media environment is borderless and nationless.

The Media environment is always evolving. This is because of 2 factors: great ideas survive and evolve as it gets passed on, and because good Media companies survive by evolving. This constant evolution is marked by four major eras brought about by the invention of new communication tools; which shaped human behavior.

The first era: the Tribal Age — we hear together

Everybody hears a child scream-singing, right?

The first and most primitive of the media eras is what McLuhan called the Tribal Stage. This was the age before humans invented writing as a form of communication. During this era, humans’ primary form of communication was through making sound. Shouts, grunts, mouth clicks and hoots developed to become oral language. Our ancestors would gather around an open fire (no chestnuts roasting though), and tell stories to each other. Primitive forms of education and culture-building were formed this way.

Sound is an omnidirectional medium. It is produced by vibrating waves that ripples and spreads to all sides. Because of this characteristic (and because humans didn’t have earphones back then), sound was also a public medium. Sounds, stories, and the act of communication was a communal experience. Around the campfire, inside the forest, or inside the hut, what John hears, Jane hears too.

Stop posing and start running John and Jane ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Sound was also an ephemeral medium. It only lasts the moment you make it. And so, stories and lessons passed on orally from generation to generation were preserved (Lum, 2006) in and only in the community’s memory.

The second era: the Age of Literacy — discovery of the “self”

The phonetic alphabet is an alphabet based on, or used to illustrate units of sound that we make. For example, each of the letters in our ABCs stand for a sound — ahhhh, buh, cah, dah.. and so on. The Filipino baybayin is a form of phonetic alphabet as well. Each symbol stands for a syllable in the language. Its invention led to the invention of the written language as humans learned to combine letters to form written versions of words they’ve only spoken before. This was the Age of Literacy — the age of reading and writing.

Unlike sound, written language was not ephemeral. In this era, three traits of communication were lost:

First is that messages lost their immediacy or “sense of now”. When we talk, shout or scream at people, the act of communicating is fleeting. You hear it or you miss it. It’s immediate. But because messages can now be written, as long as the writing is intact, the message can still be sent or received.

Messy hair, don’t care

Second: messages became more detached from their source. In oral communication, it is easier for us to connect the sound and from whom it came from, where it came from, and what situation the sound was made it.

For example: John and Jane are in the jungle. Jane sees a tiger in the tall grass quietly crawling towards John. Jane shouts to John to warn him of the coming tiger. John hears Jane. John knows that the sound came from behind him; and that Jane’s shouts were made in the jungle. Unfortunately though, John and Jane might not live long enough to make sense of all that.

Written language is much more detached from the source and context. Using the same situation above as an example: John and Jane are in the jungle. They see a sign nailed on a tree that says: “Warning, tigers quietly crawling behind you.” John and Jane would have no idea who made that sign and or where the sign came from. The message is detached from its source and context. Reading the warning sign of a tiger feels different from actually hearing or seeing a tiger.

MESSY HAIR, DON’T CARE

The third thing that was lost from the oral tradition of the Tribal Stage because of the Age of Literacy is the communal experience of communication. Unlike talking which the speaker has little to no control over who hears what they say because sound travels in all directions, reading is a private affair. Yes we can read texts simultaneously with others, but as a silent form of communication, we process it privately. Proximity or closeness to the source of message became less important because communication became much more asyncronous. Writing and reading allowed us to send and receive message at our own convenience. And this gave rise to individualism, which will be heightened even more by the era that followed: the Printing Era.

The third era: the Printing Era — the rise of individualism

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press ushered in the Printing Era. The movable type printing press is a type of printing press that uses movable components instead of fixed ones like woodblock printing. In printing, ink is applied to a carved block which is then pressed on to a medium, usually a sheet of paper. In a woodblock press, the block is a single piece of carved material, usually wood or stone; and this single block contains the whole page to be printed. So just imagine how much work goes into carving 1 fixed block per page of a book. In a movable type press, each letter and digit is a separate block. The printmaker simply needs to arrange the letters and numbers to produce the page he wants. This made printing a lot easier and quicker.

Woodblock type (left) and Movable type (right)

The impact was that information became widely accessible. Ideas were much more easy to mass produce as books, pamphlets of as flyers. The Printing Era began the steady replacement of precious handwritten texts which were very hard to reproduce en masse with printed books which had better standardization.

This was the beginning of the printing era when precious, handwritten manuscripts were replaced by printed books that were shipped and distributed to more readers. Because more people had copies of books, which they can take with them and read at their own leisure and privacy, a sense of individualism among readers grew. Learning, storytelling, and communicating messages became a private affair. It was even more possible for a person to know something others don’t; and for some to be more learned than others. Individualism came with another side of its coin which was the development of a sense of nationalism among nearby communities. This was because they were reading the same things. Their language and thoughts became more similar because of the culture they were sharing through the books they read.

The fourth era: the Electronic Age — the global village

The development of the telegraph marked the beginning of the fourth media era. The Electronic Age allowed for instantaneous communication to anyone, anywhere on the planet.

It’s harder to share memes over the phone

While the eras of writing and printing allowed for messages to be coded in media that withstands immediacy to be able to travel long distances, the messages through telegraphic and telephone communication, broadcast communications such as radio and television allowed us to go back to the verbal communication of the Tribal Stage. The key difference is that since communication through sound can now travel to anywhere, we developed a new kind of tribal society. Cultures across oceans became more and more similar due to the memes they are consuming (Memes and Mimetics in a future post). And we now end up with what is called the Global Village. (Griffin, 2006)

Beyond the Electronic Age — everything is connected

While the texts that I read (when I wrote the source paper) stopped at the Electronic Age, I think we can all infer that the era that follows is the Digital Age. The Digital Age is mentioned in passing by some sources as a development of the Electronic Age (because computers are electronic devices, and functionally, the Digital Age is the same as the Electronic Age). But as developments in computing develop, the Digital Age is beginning to acquire a whole different function.

Family Hub Refrigerator (from Samsung Website)

For example, the Internet of Things is concept wherein we are surrounded by Internet-connected devices that “talk” to each other and process our data with each other through artificial intelligence. They can make suggestions to us (algorithm-based content) and even decisions for us (self-driving cars) which were not possible in the Electronic Age.

Photo from The Financial Times

Another example connected to the Internet of Things is the introduction of the “metaverse”. While Facebook popularized this idea when they changed their company name to lean more towards developing this idea, the metaverse is a much much older concept that has since been refined through technology. The metaverse at this point is a buzzword as different companies have different definitions for it from a simple dressing up of an immersive gaming experience, to a completely distinct layer of existence through computers enabled by virtual reality.

In Closing

A couple of other theories come to mind that explains why this happens and what else might happen:

First is Technological Determinism. This theory argues (or explains?) that technology plays an active role in changing human behavior and society. As shared above, the Media Eras begin win the invention of certain technology — written alphabet, moveable type printing press, telegraph, and the internet. Whoever initiated these inventions and for what purpose is debatable. But what is for sure is that technologies change us and that is why we have to be more ethical and discerning with what technologies we create and embrace.

Same, same.

The second theory is Mediamorphosis. It says that media and communication technologies are results of changing human needs. Are these needs discovered or created? This too can be argued. The First Things First Manifesto expresses the Creatives’ belief that we need to go beyond selling product and see the bigger social impact that communications and design has on human behavior. Craig Davis once said that we need to stop making people want things and begin making things people want.

To close this installment, I’d like to share another theory that can help contextualize all of this. This one’s a favorite.

Agenda-Setting Theory explains that there is always an entity that tries to set the agenda or what is considered as important. We, the people can work together to make more people realize the importance of particular issues. Awareness for ALS, #BlackLivesMatter, the #MeToo Movement, and the Philippines’ #NeverForget movement are efforts of the public to highlight issues and topics and turn them into a public agenda — and to possibly influence public policy and even elections.

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Agenda-Setting-Theory-Model_fig1_307536314

However, companies can also have agendas they want to push and make relevent to us. This is the whole rationale for the advertising industry. And our communication platforms are becoming more and more consolidated and owned by a few media and tech companies. Eitherway, whether it is the public pushing an issue to become an agenda, or the companies pushing their content and massaging messages to make certain topics seem more important, we need to be more discerning with the messages and even the media and platforms we use and consume. Whatever we do, we are shaped by our media environment; but let’s not forget that we also have the power to shape it.

Sources:

Communication, in M. (2018, April 23). Technological determinism. Communication Theory. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://www.communicationtheory.org/technological-determinism/.

Fidler, R. (1997). Principles of mediamorphosis. In Mediamorphosis: Understanding new media (pp. 1–30). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781452233413.n1

Griffin, Emory A. A First Look at Communication Theory. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.

Logan, Robert. (2002). The Five Ages of Communication. Explorations in Media Ecology. 1. 13–20. 10.1386/eme.1.1.13_1.

Posted February 19, 2018 | C. (2019, February 20). The agenda-setting theory in mass communication. Alvernia Online. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://online.alvernia.edu/articles/agenda-setting-theory/.

The 3 eras of communication according to McLuhan & Innis. McLuhan Galaxy. (2015, June 9). Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/the-3-eras-of-communication-according-to-mcluhan-innis/.