Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom



Before getting into the specifics of the print and digital media revolutions let's look at media in general: How do we define media? Or more accurately, how do media define us? In what ways are media agents of cultural change? Why do print and digital mediums have different effects, or messages?

Advancements in media technology are now becoming the calibration marks for history's major paradigmatic shifts. "Mediology," even, is a recognized and ever-expanding field of study. French radical theoretician, Regis Debray, for instance, proposes three historical ages of transmission technologies: the logosphere (the age of writing, technology, kingdom, and faith), the graphosphere (the age of print, political ideologies, nations and laws), and the newly born videosphere (the age of multimedia broadcasting, models, individuals, and opinions). Though these temporal strata have not been widely accepted, Debray's work exemplifies the fact that the technologies of transmission have taken on a position in our culture of vertiginous power --- almost omnipotence --- as media now get credit for shaping not only to the information we distribute and consume, but our powers of perception, our political, social and economic systems, and our general constructions of truth.

Media and their wide-ranging effects have been around ever since humanity has been conglomerating into tribes and nations and developing methods of communication --- ways of extending the scope of one's naked voice beyond hearing range, and giving form and substance to one's thoughts. The Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, in other words, are no less viable (although less ubiquitous) expressions of media than TV shows and magazines of today. But the schematic analysis of media --- the recognition and study of its impact on every aspect of social living, is only a few decades old. Carlyle may have claimed in the 1830s that the printing press destroyed feudalism and created the modern world; Plato, as Derrida emphasizes, may have pointed to the effects of writng 2,500 years ago, but the wide-ranging attention today given to media and their effects is, on the whole, unprecedented. Even more fundamental, the concept of the malleable individual constructed by his "field of cultural production," as Pierre Bordieu called it, has been tossed around for centuries. Back to the days when the actors of the ancient Greek and Roman stage jumped in an out of personalities as quickly as they affixed their various masks, notions of the inconstancy of the human condition have been entertained.

The nineteenth century brought about major ideological change that set the stage for media studies. What with a God dethroned by that mundane insurgent, science, the chaos that seized Western nations around the close of the nineteenth-century seemed unparalleled in history. Darwin had come up with a convincing theory of evolution which smacked God-fearing members of the Victorian Age square in the face. He dismantled on a grand scale the moral, spiritual, and even political, foundations of the Western world--- a world hitherto comfortably centered around the almighty God who bestowed tidy, immutable essences in each one of His human creations. Darwin, along with a heady battalion of progressive philosophers and scientists --- including pioneers of the brand new social sciences: sociology, psychology, anthropology, et al --- quite effectively threw into question the fundamental meaning for human existence. The notion that human beings have malleable personalities largely constructed by the environment in which they develop --- the subjectivity of experience --- began to gain currency and scientific evidence in the late 1800s, and established the foundation on which the grandfather of media theory, Marshall McLuhan, would base his claims half a century later .

McLuhan introduced into the language our present usage of the term media, as well as a number of other concepts, including "the global village," "the medium is the message," and "The Age of Information," that since have become commonplaces. By fall of 1965, his most popular and optimistic book, Undertanding Media: The Extensions of Man, had procured him a position as a faddish social theorist and, to some, a prophet. A review in The New York Herald Tribune, representing a consensus of informed opinion, called him "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov..." McLuhan's notoriety and credibility faded away by the time of his death, in 1980: he had become increasingly recalcitrant in public, his words, increasingly nonsensical, even absurd, and the print medium, which he had pronounced obsolete, was popular as ever. (There are innumerable examples of McLuhan's often brash effortd to shock the public. My favorite is the announcement in 1971 of s new product tha he created with his nephew, chemist Ross Hall. He called the formula Prohtex, and it removed the semll of urine from underpants without masking the other, more intersting smells, such as perpiration---an iumportant form of communication for preliterate man. He was preparing the world, facetioulsy, for the global village.) But McLuhan was not altogether a harlequin. Today his words resonate with eerie prescience. Critic Gary Wolf writes:

In recent years, the explosion of new media --- particularly the Internet --- has caused new anxieties. Or to put a more McLuhanesque spin on it, the advent of the new digital media has brought the conditions of the old technologies into sharper relief, and made us suddenly conscious of our media environment. In the confusion of the digital revolution, McLuhan is relevant again ("Wisdom of St. Marshall" 124).

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