A quick, dirty, and intuitive history of media might run something like this.
In the distant past, people were mostly guided by instinct and the native spark of intelligence that set us apart from animals. Intellectually speaking, humanity grew in fits and starts – as when some individual stumbled upon an innovation and made something of it. This knowledge – for the most part – got handed down through the generations via an oral tradition. And that was good.
But the transfer of wisdom must have remained imperfect, and the survival of knowledge was a constant struggle. Inheritors needed to be born or found, for instance, and clan secrets protected. Because oral tradition was so tenuous, and its transmitters so few, humanity learned to become hoarders of knowledge.
The rise of the written word resulted in the oral traditions becoming better preserved and transmitted. But still, the ability to transfer oral traditions into scratches on a surface remained limited, as was the ability to read those scratches when the original author passed away. Despite the persistence of the intellectual record, therefore, knowledge was still a fragile commodity, easily lost.
As our proficiency at writing improved, so too did the robustness of knowledge. But then a new twist emerged. With the realization that knowledge was, in fact, power, there arose an intellectual aristocracy. Where the landed aristos won their wealth and power through brute strength, the intellectual aristocracy maintained a subtle influence that was no less powerful.
Imagine a landlord, frustrated at the dying of his crops – not knowing why. He would turn to those who knew and those who knew, in helping the landlord, gained a kind of power over him. But that power too was fragile and easily wrested away. Then as now, geeks hardly stood a chance against jocks.
But jocks are a cowardly and superstitious lot – as Bruce Wayne intuited. And so, if the geeks could not cow them by might and main, they resorted to superstition and religion. Fear of damnation led kings to brave winter storms just to ask for a priests forgiveness. Eventually, intellectual power became the prized possession of the God-merchants. But don’t gt me wrong. This was, by no means a novelty. Stretching back into pre-history, god-merchants had always exercised this monopoly on esoteric knowledge. The emergence of powerful religion simply modernized the shamanistic tyranny of information.
Fortunately, not all tyrannies last forever, and it was Gutenberg who began to undermine the intellectual despotism of the god-merchants. Prior to his printing press, the wisdom contained in books and codices could only be replicated by a tedious process of copying – most of the time by monks who had no idea what they were doing. Copying stroke by painstaking stroke, whole libraries were shared among the intellectual elite – their monopoly and mastery of the superstition protecting them and their wealth.
Gutenberg changed all that. With his printing press, copying books became a snap. But that wasn’t enough. History needed men like Martin Luther to emerge and maximize the latent power of the press. Independent thinkers who put their thoughts into books and tracts and treatises that were then distributed all over.
This allowed them to make copies of themselves. The very earliest and crudest clones. There can only be one Martin Luther. And that one man can educate and inflame the minds of only so many people. But print Luther’s words and give them to some other person to read, then that person becomes Luther – speaking his word to more people than the original ever could.
These men, were, in a very real sense the first media-men. They transmitted knowledge to people who otherwise would not have had access to that knowledge.
But still, despite the spreading power of ideas, despite the crumbling of the intellectual tyranny of the god-merchants, still not enough people could take full advantage of the power of the printed word. For one thing, many could not read. For another, most people do not have the mental skill to build new ideas from old ones; fewer still could junk old ideas entirely and blaze new intellectual frontiers.
Education then, became the last bulwark of the god-merchants. Sure the rabble can listen to Martin Luther – but we can always fire back and confuse them, and in their confusion, a vast majority of them will return to the comfortable security of simply living the life that they are told to live. Prevent, therefore, the emergence of more Luthers.
The intellectual tyranny evolved to accomodate the challenge men like Luther posed. Knowledge was hoarded more obsessively than ever, and emergent strains were ruthlessly cut down.
But the gates had been thrown open by Gutenberg, and there was no closing them again. What the god-merchants thought was their last stand, turned out to be nothing more than a rear-action – a desperate move to stave off a rout.
Education spread, intellectuals blossomed, and soon, there were more Luthers than anyone could contain. The people progressively became smarter and smarter, but still, the Luthers were outnumbered by the sheep. And so the media went on over-drive.
Newspapers sprouted – obviously not the thick catalogues we have today – but sometimes mere scraps of paper that had precious news printed on it. News about an abusive prelate; news about a exciting new discovery; and editorials! Essays extolling one idea or another; rallying people to a cause; or striking down some perceived injustice, if only in angry language.
These vehicles of news became precious to a populace that the establishment – the unholy alliance of the god-merchants (out to protect their intellectual monopoly) and the aristos (concerned mostly with their temporal wealth and power) – struggled to keep mired in ignorance.
Media performed an indispensable, if life threatening service to the people.
But the wheel turns. Inexorably. In time, media slipped into the shoes of its old competitor – the god-merchants. As religion slowly lost its influence, the aristos were on the look-out for new partners. Who better to co-opt than the ones who had whittled away the church’s influence?
Venerating new gods – gods like liberty, equality, and brotherhood – the media became the new god-merchants. And the people, owing much to the pioneering efforts of media, allowed the transition to happen; allowed themselves to slip into the folds of media new and benevolent tyranny of knowledge.
Where people once accepted the cleric’s word as gospel truth, so too has modern man come to be comfortable with the idea that newspapers cannot lie; and by extension – that other news merchants must be telling the truth.
But like in the days of the old god-merchants, this intellectual tyranny was supported mainly by the common people’s inability to control content. Where copying books was the sole province of clerics, the media (as we now use that word) controlled what was printed and disseminated, and so controlled our perception of the world around us.
Think about that. And think about how sometimes you find yourself thinking that there never so many wars or so many earthquakes as there are now. But you would be wrong. Wars have been fought with astonishing regularity throughout millenia, and earthquakes have been rocking our world daily since time immemorial. We just didn’t know about it. Media generally didn’t have the ability to report on goings on around the world, and so we lived in relative isolation.
And then came CNN.
CNN – and its enablers, industrialization and mass production – made it possible for us to eavesdrop on events happening half-away across the world, suddenly opening our eyes to the reality that our lazy Sunday was some other country’s Bloody Monday. Our perception of the world changed, and we had the media to thank for it.
As far as tyrants go, CNN didn’t have long to reign. A new kid came swaggering into town: the internet.
All of a sudden, the internet allowed ordinary people to contribute to the river of information that flowed round and round the world. Perceptions were no longer shaped exclusively by the news-merchants but by ordinary people who, in many cases, no longer needed the media for anything but the “official” story. And who wanted the official story anyway?
It is far more interesting to read a man’s account of how he fought off a vicious fish intent on tearing him to shreds while he half-drowned off the coast of Patagonia, than to read “Man survives attack by killer shark.”
The dominance created by the god-merchants, that they grudgingly handed-off to the news-merchants, had finally evaporated. Billions of people – bloggers – their faces lit by the synth-glow of flatscreen monitors were now in control. And in the process, the character and nature of information changed as well.
The god-merchants trafficked in esoterica, charging exorbitant fees for sharing their knowledge; fees paid in gold and power. The news-merchants sold fact and, while they started out charging only enough to cover costs, they eventually learned how to make big money from their captive audience, and even bigger money by charging other merchants for the privilege of riding on the hotline to the people.
Bloggers, on the other hand peddle not just esoterica, not just fact, but also personal opinion. Information is no longer just useful, it is now also immensely personal and entertaining. Most importantly, it is now also FREE.
But this is not Utopia. And though this is where we find ourselves in the story of media, the story does not end here