Chapter 3: How Communication Shapes our Culture

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 3: How Communication Shapes our Culture

Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.

-- African Proverb, Oxfam Poster, London, 1989


When people tell me that the communication media don't affect them, I am reminded of the true story of a woman who objected when a speaker insisted that she probably bought even her toothpaste on the basis of media influence. "What kind of toothpaste do you buy?" he asked. "Crest," she replied. "But it's not because of the commercials," she assured him, "it's just that my children can't brush after every meal!" 1

The media do affect us, profoundly. In fact, the history of our communication technology is, in one sense, also a history of our cultures: oral, written, printed and electronic.

We will better understand how the media affect our values and worldview today if we see in perspective just how much changes in communication media have affected cultural values throughout human history.

Oral Communication

We know very little about the first epoch of human history, that four million years or so when humans lived in an oral mode, because during that period they left almost no records of their existence. From the marvelous cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere we know that our forebears were sensitive and articulate people. But because they had not discovered how to arrange written marks in ways to communicate their language, we can know very little about what they thought, felt, believed and valued.

Written Communication

Fairly suddenly, about 3,300 B.C., a major change in human communication occurred. Someone, or perhaps some people, invented a system of representing oral speech in visual form: writing. At first, pictures stood for things or events. Gradually the pictures were standardized and became symbols or hieroglyphics which could be combined to represent whole new ideas. For example, in Egypt the picture of a river plus a boat meant "travel." Finally alphabets were created, a brilliant leap forward, because a single, finite set of symbols could represent all the sounds of speech.

Consider what it meant to be able to represent what was said. Marks on clay or papyrus could last for centuries -- creating a new sense of history. Letters could be carried from place to place -- creating a new understanding of what was "the world." Collections of writings could communicate the ideas of great thinkers -- creating new kinds of education. Documents could be carried -- creating new kinds of business and trade. Records could be referred to again and again -- creating new concepts of truth, of contracts, and of the law.

The invention of writing changed the way people thought. This recognition greatly disturbed some of the early Greeks, who already had a highly developed culture based on the oral tradition. The Scholar Eric A. Havelock believes that the transition in Greece from orality to literacy wiped out the need for people to develop a highly accurate memory based on speech, and thus eliminated the need for communicators to express themselves in language that could easily be memorized. The Greek oral tradition -- its lengthy sagas, its poetry, its rhythms, its rhymes, its repeats and choruses, its cliches and rich imagery ("brave Odysseus," "fair maiden," "rosy-fingered dawn") -- was no longer necessary. The writer was no longer a speaker and therefore no longer needed to concentrate on stories about people; instead, writers were freed to deal more directly with ideas. Thus the new technology of communication was a major factor in the development of Greek philosophy. 2

In his classic study on Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong stresses the importance of writing in the development of human thought. He points out that "orally managed language and thought is not noted for analytic precision." Someone may speak eloquently and present a strong personal presence but express very little in the way of thoughtful ideas. A writer, on the other hand, has no opportunity to use the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the eye contact, the feedback that the speaker enjoys. For this reason the writer must "foresee all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself." 3

Also, writing separates the knower from the known, the writer from the reader. Writing is a solitary activity. It leads to introspection and self examination. The image of the writer working alone in a solitary garret accurately represents much of written endeavor. In fact, claims Ong, writing "makes possible the great introspective religious traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." 4

Because of the written tradition's fundamental impact upon culture, not all Greeks embraced it gladly. Socrates could not read or write, yet he had fashioned the highest form of oral discourse -- at the moment when Greek was changing from oral to written culture. A few years later, Plato, standing on the other side of the line dividing oral from written, was himself profoundly disturbed by the impact of the new technology. In Phaedrus Plato has Socrates comment on writing:

"....this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memory; they will trust to external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." 5

Plato understood something about the shift to literacy which we, in our time, must understand about the shift to electronic communication: that communication technologies change not only what we think, but how.

Printed Communication

The development of printing again extended our communication environment. While significant, these new changes were not nearly as fundamental as the shift from orality to literacy. Printing was not invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1450. In fact, printing was not so much a Western invention as a Western appropriation. The Egyptians had printed books by at least 1350 B.C.. There was even a daily newspaper, the Acta Diurna, printed on papyrus in Rome in 131, and printed books were sold in Rome throughout the second century A.D.. The print was carved on wooden blocks and the blocks were pressed to papyrus a page at a time.

Moveable type, often thought of as the key invention of Gutenberg, actually was in use in China by the eleventh century. In Korea, metal type was first used to print books during the reign of King Kojong in 1250, and moveable metal type was cast "by the thousands" in Korea in 1403 -- forty-seven years before Gutenberg. 6

What Gutenberg did was to mobilize the technology. He created the first assembly line of interchangeable parts -- the precursor of Henry Ford's automobile factory. From a group of less than 30 characters Gutenberg made hundreds of "a's," "b's," and "c's," each one of which could be used and reused to create words, and he mounted them on bases that could be fitted together quickly into lines and locked into a frame. He set up six presses, hired 25 workmen. It took a great deal of money, three years and 5,700 calfskins to produce the magnificent Mainz Bible.

Printing was one of the earliest examples of the capitalist spirit. It embodied high technology, assembly line techniques, the separation of the work process into discrete steps, the distancing of the worker from the final product, and, above all, it proved a highly efficient and therefore highly lucrative business. And it generated a huge new enterprise -- the merchandising of books throughout the known world.

Lutheranism grew with the spread of printed books. Between 1517 and 1520, Martin Luther's thirty books and pamphlets sold more than 300,000 copies. Protestantism thoroughly exploited the medium; it was the first movement of any kind to use printing for overt propaganda and agitation against an established institution -- the Roman Catholic church. As Elizabeth Eisenstein says in her book on the role of the printing press, Protestant clergy "viewed printing as a providential device which ended forever a priestly monopoly of learning, overcame ignorance and superstition, pushed back the evil forces commanded by Italian popes, and, in general, brought Western Europe out of the dark ages." 7

Printing brought ideas, if not to the masses, then at least to the middle classes. Within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of people who could read had access to written works that heretofore had been accessible only to clergy, teachers and the very rich. This democratization of learning neatly fit into Luther's emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, Protestantism's view that individuals should make their own decisions about the future of their immortal souls, and the Renaissance insistence that learning and ideas should be available to all. Printing gave a mighty push to the concept that meanings are in people, that ideas get their authority from widespread acceptance, and that individuals should make their own decisions rather than accept those handed down from a higher authority. According to Eisenstein, it was printing, not Protestantism, that finally outmoded Roman Catholic use of the Vulgate Bible, and it was printing, not Protestantism, that set in motion the more democratic and national forms of worship which undermined much of the Roman Catholic church's control throughout Europe. 8

But printing also led to enormous dissent within Christendom, setting church leaders at odds with one another. Because various translations of the Bible were so widely available, people could no longer ignore discrepancies in the scriptures. Some began to question scriptural authorship and to analyze biblical texts in a scholarly way. At the same time, printing allowed religious authorities to demand adherence to "standard" forms of worship, "approved" hymns, and "authorized" biblical texts.

Thus printing had two quite opposite effects on religion. It pushed many Christians toward freedom of thought in relation to authority and toward individual scholarship that ultimately led to the approaches to the Bible called "higher criticism" and "modernism." At the same time, it made possible the spread of more rigid views of right belief, and pushed many Christians toward dogmatism and the approach to doctrine called "fundamentalism."

Electronic Communication

The next leap in communication technology came some five thousand years after the invention of writing, but a mere four hundred years after the invention of moveable type. Electronic communication comprised a series of inventions that moved us into the era in which we live.

The speed with which the technology changed is itself astonishing. Consider this listing of major events in the evolution of communication, and the length of time between significant changes:

4,000,000-400,000 B.C. Human speech

3,500 Writing (Sumer)

1,500 Writing (China)

800 Phonetic alphabet (Phoenicia)

131 A.D. Block printing (Rome)

450 Block printing (Asia)

1250 Moveable type (Korea)

1456 Moveable type, printing (Germany)

1621 Newspaper (Amsterdam)

1731 Magazine (London)

1839 Photography - Daguerre (France)

1858 Cable under the Atlantic - U.K. to Newfoundland

1844 Telegraph - Morse (USA)

1876 Telephone - Bell (USA)

1877 Phonograph - Edison (USA)

1886 Linotype - Merganthaler (Germany)

1891 Motion pictures - Lumiere/Edison (France,USA)

1895 Wireless telegraphy (radio) - Marconi (Italy)

1906 Radio (voice transmission) - Fessendon (Canada,USA)

1920 Radio broadcasting - KDKA Pittsburgh

1923 Television - New York to Philadelphia

1927 Sound movies (USA)

1928 Regular TV broadcast in U.S. - WGY Schenectady

1935 FM radio - Armstrong (USA)

1942 Commercial TV standardized in the U.S.

1946 Electronic computer - University of Pennsylvania

1947 Transistor (AT&T)

1948 TV increases from 100,000 to 1 million sets in USA

1950 Cable TV (USA)

1954 Regular color TV broadcasts (USA)

1957 Global satellite - "Sputnik" (USSR)

1960 Integrated circuit chips (USA)

1983 Operational optical fiber: Boston-Washington 9

More than one-half of all major developments in communication technology have occurred during the last one hundred years.

Of all the electric developments, perhaps the most significant was Samuel F. B. Morse's invention of the telegraph (and the telegraphic code, a whole new alphabet) in 1844. Previously, information could travel no faster than a horse could gallop or a boat could sail. A few attempts had been made to develop line-of-sight signal systems. Napoleon used a string of semaphores on French hill-tops to advantage, and in 1800 a line-of-sight system was opened between Martha's Vineyard and Boston to transmit news from arriving ships. But for all practical purposes, the telegraph brought a fundamental change: information independent of any form of transportation and so fast that distance was erased.

Consider some implications. Where the prices of commodities had varied widely from city to city, within a few years after the telegraph unified national commodity markets could set essentially uniform prices. Where distance from a nation's hub cities -- London, Paris, New York -- had represented a proportional loss in news, information and power, now "the provinces" in Europe and North America rapidly increased in economic, social and political power. Where railroads had been obliged to maintain horses and riders every five miles along the track to race back and forth to warn engineers of impending collisions, the "singing wire" could now control the flow of trains, and not incidentally, their cargoes, so that whole new national distribution systems were possible.

Christians quickly embraced the notion that increased communication would bring about enlightenment and progress, just as sixteenth-century Protestants had seen printing as a providential device to overcome ignorance and superstition and "bring Western Europe out of the dark ages." The telegraph, and the inventions that followed it, gave the multitudes hope for realizing a utopia of universal peace.

But business saw a different potential. James Carey points out that the telegraph was "the first great industrial monopoly," and that its most significant impact was the "relationship between the telegraph and monopoly capitalism." 10 Western Union was the first communication empire, and industrial magnates, including Jay Gould and the Vanderbilt interests, fought to control it. They realized that communication could actively govern physical processes -- not only passenger movements, but also railroad stock, production quotas, and distribution schedules. It was not long before a man named Richard B. Sears of North Redwood, Minnesota, combined the railroad, the telegraph, and the new U.S. Rural Postal system to create a giant new network of merchandising -- the mail order house. When he joined forces with Mr. Roebuck, the Sears-Roebuck Catalogue quickly became a household staple, symbolically and literally replacing the family Bible in thousands of living rooms across America.

"Wireless" radio extended communication to ships at sea and across continents, and undersea cables brought about whole new kinds of communication with other continents. Thoreau feared the new cable technology would merely trivialize the news, bringing us word "that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." 11 It did. But it also extended Britain's sinews of power, allowing it to consolidate its empire in India, Burma, and Kenya.

Meanwhile, commercial radio succeeded in galvanizing whole nations around a new kind of experience: professionally produced stories, musicals, and immediate news -- all designed for the ear. At the same time, faster and more centralized communication enlarged the power of big-city newspapers; at the turn of the century their muck-raking reporters captured the popular imagination with crusades against corruption and fraud. Soon even faster presses and better paper made possible a whole new kind of news reporting: photo journalism. And where such serialized magazine writers as Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe had captured the imagination of nineteenth-century readers with their latter-day Morality Plays carried in Harpers Bazaar and other periodicals, now such new slick-paper magazines as Liberty, Saturday Evening Post and Colliers provided color versions of those same morality tales to twentieth century readers. The culminating point was reached by LIFE magazine, which documented in photo essay form the life and times of the Western world during the forties and fifties.

Then beginning about 1950, television brought it all together. TV had radio's immediacy and reach into every home. It had the picture magazine's ability to encapsule events in pictures. It had the movies' ability to tell stories. Television could go anywhere, cover anything. It could speed events up and slow them down. It could magnify the atom and miniaturize the world. It could speak to us, tell us stories, be with us -- any time of the day or night.

Yes, the nature of communication technology has always had a major affect on culture. Yet technology only produces tools; it is up to human beings to decide how to incorporate those tools into the culture. Therefore, the question we need to answer next is: how is the new communication technology being used? By whom? For what purposes? With what social and personal effects? And how does the use of the media shape what has meaning and value in our time?


1. Only those readers under twenty, or who never watch TV, failed to see commercials run throughout the 1970s proclaiming Crest as the toothpaste designed especially "for those who can't brush after every meal."

2. Havelock, Eric A. (1986). The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 100-101.

3. Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: ?The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, p. 104.

4. Ong, p. 105.

5. Denney, Reuel (1957). The Astonished Muse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 161.

6. Exhibit in National Museum of Korea, Seoul, March 1989.

7. Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 305.

8. Eisenstein, p. 353.

9. Adapted from Michael R. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 11.

10. Carey, p. 5.

11. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), p. 36.