Abductive Columns

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Print and Broadcast Revolutions (1)

When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type about 1454 and printed the Bible, he initiated a revolution in communications. Gutenberg’s Bible became a best-seller, and the art of printing spread rapidly. Within 70 years, Europe had more than 1,000 printers, and books were widely available. Later, newspapers and magazines proliferated.

Printed words, unlike speech, remain fixed in space and motionless over time. This permanence allows readers to return to the same words again and again—a process that permits thoughts to be examined and tested from many different perspectives.

The dominance of print communication created more-analytic, rational minds that see the world as parts assembled in an orderly whole, like the words in a sentence. So printed literature enabled linear, “rational” thought to largely supplant the “irrational” thought of the oral world. Understanding through analysis began replacing understanding through dialogue. With printing, the West exploded with new discoveries. Books nourished the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, science, and much else.

Print continues to play a critically important role in communications— just as does speaking—but it lost its dominance in about 1950 to television, which now feeds more information into people’s minds than does print.

Television showed the world to itself. Hundreds of millions of people sitting at home could watch stirring events in faraway places and see the world’s leaders more frequently and up closer than their next-door neighbors. Television broke down barriers that had separated people from each other. Poor people now could see how rich people actually lived. Whites and blacks could see the realities of racial segregation. The American people could see the horrors of the Vietnam War, and their government could not explain away its failures.

Print had made reason king and stimulated reflective thinking, but now broadcast elevated desire and emotion and encouraged reflexive thinking—the kind of thinking we do while driving a car. Television demands only our attention and reaction, requiring of us no analysis, no historical perspective, and no connection to any other event. Printed words drive us toward reaching a conclusion or having a perspective, but TV images leave information open to many meanings. They encourage us to keep our options open and “go with the flow.”

The Print Era lasted for 400 years, coming to an end within the lifetime of people still alive. The Broadcast Era will have a much shorter run. Already, broadcast’s dominance is yielding to the digital media, and they will likely become the dominant media of communication by about 2010.

from the article The Digital Dynamic: How Communication Media is Shaping our Culture by Rex Miller


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