1. Chapter 3
Historical and Cultural Context
This chapter will prepare students to:
• describe the major events and general trends in media history
• recognize the milestones in the development of human communication
• understand the role that these advances played in prompting significant changes
in our culture and society
• learn that the emergence of new communications advances changes but does
not make extinct those communications that came before
• understand that each advance in communication increases our power to convey
and record information
Chapter main points:
• Printing made information available to a larger audience. It helped the
development of vernacular languages, aided the Protestant Reformation, and
contributed to the spread and accumulation of knowledge.
• The telegraph and telephone were the first media to l=use electricity to
communicate. They marked the first time the message could be separated from
the messenger. The telegraph helped the railroads move west and permitted the
newspapers to publish more timely news. The telephone linked people together n
the first instance of a communication network.
• Photography provided a way to reserve history, had an impact on art, and
brought better visuals to newspapers and magazines. Motion pictures helped
socialize a generation of immigrants and became an important part of American
• Radio and TV broadcasting brought news and entertainment into the home,
transformed leisure time, and pioneered a new, immediate kind of reporting.
Television has an impact on free time, politics, socialization, culture, and many
other areas as well.
• The digital revolution changed the way information was stored and transmitted
and made e-commerce possible.
• Mobile media have changed American culture and taken over some of the
functions of mass media.
• The next communication milestone is the expanding use of social media.
2. • In general, it is difficult to predict the ultimate shape of a new medium. New
media change but do not replace older media. The pace of media inventions has
accelerated in recent years.
BEFORE MASS COMMUNICATION
The birth of spoken language marked a major development in the evolution of the human
race. By necessity, oral-based societies became very dependent upon their members to have
exceptional memories. The challenge was to accurately pass down from generation to generation
as much information as could be remembered. That limitation, however, caused our collective
knowledge and information base to grow slowly.
As humans developed, the need for better record keeping spurred the development of writing,
which probably began around 3500 BC in Sumeria (present day Iraq), followed a few hundred
years later by other systems in China and Egypt. Writing created a privileged class of literate
people whose access to information gave them power.
Early books, which became numerous in the Middle Ages, were hand-copied by scribes in
monasteries. They were expensive and a medium of the elite.
Though early Asian variations of printing existed before Johann Gutenberg, his use of moveable
metal type in 1453 revolutionized communication. Printing could become cheap, quick, and
Effects of the Gutenberg Revolution
The Gutenberg Revolution:
3. • helped standardize and popularize vernacular (everyday) languages (as opposed to Latin),
which in turn helped spawn the growth of nationalism in Europe in the later Middle Ages
• allowed information to quickly become more accessible to a wider range of people
• produced more books, which fueled the demand for literacy, which in turn created a
demand for more books
• generated new schools of social and religious doctrines during the Reformation era, such
as Martin Luther’s Protestantism
• accelerated the publication of and interest in scientific research
• helped encourage exploration with the timely publishing of maps, geographical
information, and the colorful accounts of early explorers
• had a profound effect on the growth of accumulated knowledge, with more books
resulting in an increased number of scholars and students; helping make possible the
Renaissance of the 16th Century
• led to the development of the current concept of “news”
Technology and Cultural Change
If we ascribe too much credit for cultural change to a specific technology, we risk viewing social
development through the narrow lens of technological determinism, the belief that technology
drives historical change. A more moderate position might suggest that technology functions with
various social, economic, and cultural forces to help bring about those changes.
The birth of printing marks the start of what we generally define as mass communication, a
critical event in Western history.
CONQUERING SPACE AND TIME:
THE TELEGRAPH AND TELEPHONE
The telegraph and telephone were two technologies that led to many of today’s features in digital
Development of the Telegraph
Before the telegraph, messages traveled only as fast as the fastest form of transportation; but with
one invention the speed of communication went from 30 miles per hour (train) to 186,000 miles
per second (the speed of light). It was the first device that made possible instantaneous point-to-
point communication at huge distances. The word telegraph comes from Greek words meaning
“to write at a distance.” It was also the first technology to use digital signals—dots and dashes.
Using a device to vary the time an electric current was sent across the wires, the telegraph made
point-to-point communication possible by sending codes across the wires. Samuel Morse’s code
of telegraphic dots and dashes, still in use today, is the most famous.
4. Cultural Impact of the Telegraph
Because of the telegraph:
• by 1850, almost every city in the U.S. western frontier was linked with other cities
• in 1866, a trans-Atlantic cable was put into place to connect America with Europe
Parallel to the expansion of the railroads, the telegraph helped change the way we moved goods,
coordinated services (particularly military actions), and helped speed up communication between
buyers and sellers. Because of near-instant communication, market prices between cities were
standardized and stabilized. The telegraph also affected the flow of news, making it both possible
and a commercial “must” to carry up-to-the-day’s events from far distant points. News stories
also became shorter due to the fact that telegraph services charged by the word.
Government and Media
Unlike other countries where the telegraph was seen as an extension of the postal service, and
therefore under logical control and operation of the government, the United States followed a
model of private ownership and commercial development.
A Change in Perspective
The telegraph changed how people thought of distance; as the new device reconfigured old
concepts of space and time, every “there” became a “here.” We began thinking of our world,
as mass media writer Marshall McLuhan came to describe it, as a global village. Thanks to the
telegraph system, most countries on the planet became inextricably linked together.
Soon after the telegraph, the telephone began linking people together by voice, eliminating the
need to understand telegraphic codes. Its ability to network and offer private communications
made it a “must have” in homes and businesses. And just as big business came to dominate
the telegraph industry (Western Union), AT&T (which later acquired Western Union) quickly
became the giant of the telephone industry.
CAPTURING THE IMAGE:
PHOTOGRAPHY AND MOTION PICTURES
Early Technological Development
Two things are needed to permanently store an image:
• a way to focus light rays from a subject onto a surface
• a way to permanently alter that surface
5. In the 16th century artists discovered that they could project an inverted image of a subject in
the end of a dark box through a pinhole at the other end of the box, a device called the camera
obscura (dark chamber).
In the 1830s, Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre found a way to capture images on glass plates
treated with silver iodide. Early photos (Daguerreotypes) required long exposure times, and
were particularly suitable for portraits. At about the same time William Fox Talbot found a
way to store images (and subsequently produce multiple copies) on paper. In the 1890s, George
Eastman introduced and marketed his new box camera, thus making photography accessible to
Photorealism and Mathew Brady
Brady was the first to capture war extensively on film. His photographs of the U.S. Civil War
gave a grisly, rather than glorified, record of war.
Photography also affected art, freeing artists to interpret the world and events in new and
unique ways. Photography itself became its own art form, however, and spawned such noted
photographers as Alfred Steiglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, and Edward Steichen.
Photography’s Influence on Mass Culture
Once in the hands of the masses, photography enabled people to create a permanent record of
their personal histories. Printing advances made it easy to publish photographs in magazines
and newspapers, creating a new profession – photojournalism. The 1920s saw a surge in time-
saving devices, and the spread of photographic news added to that movement; Americans could
now see, rather than have to read, newsworthy events. Our definition of news changed, too, and
became visually biased; news became that which could be shown. More recently, the use of
modern cell phone cameras has become very popular and has raised privacy concerns.
Pictures in Motion
Helped by the emergence of three significant trends (industrialization, urbanization, and
immigration), the demand for film entertainment flourished in crude store-front theaters around
the 1900s. By 1910 there were over 10,000 of these nickelodeons, which helped create the
motion picture industry.
Motion Pictures and American Culture
Eventually, only the large companies who could afford to produce feature length films survived.
They soon dominated the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies. The film industry
forever altered our concept of leisure time activities. Hollywood produced cultural icons, and the
movies helped bring about the notion of a popular culture.
Although film was primarily an entertainment medium, it also influenced journalism in the
form of newsreels, ten-minute short takes of various news, sports, weather, and human interest
stories. Dying out in the 1950s under pressure from TV news, newsreels continue to influence
6. the conventions of broadcast news reporting.
NEWS AND ENTERTAINMENT AT HOME:
RADIO AND TELEVISION BROADCASTING
Radio was the first medium to bring live entertainment into the home. In World War I military
planners quickly saw radio’s applicability to warfare, thus encouraging both research and
development in the medium while at the same time ending some long-standing patent wars that
had delayed radio’s development.
By the 1930s, broadcasting became a national craze. Modern radio was born in the Roaring
Twenties out of vigorous economic conditions that easily allowed radio to support itself with
Radio growth boomed, and as a result the government was forced to intervene in 1927 by
establishing the Federal Radio Commission to regulate radio’s technical side. The FRC and its
successor the Federal Communications Commission generally take a hands-off approach to radio
content, leaving radio’s fortunes in the hands of business.
Paralleling an era of newspaper consolidation, two national radio networks (later three) emerged.
Radio content quickly moved toward mass appeal programs, which provided huge audiences for
major advertisers. During the 1930s, economic pressures from the Great Depression led many
out-of-work Vaudeville performers to enter radio, thus increasing the level of professionalism
and appeal of network programming. By the late 1930s, radio became a more important source
of news than the newspaper.
Cultural Impact of Radio
• helped popularize different kinds of music
• introduced a new entertainment genre, the soap opera, which by 1940 accounted for
some 60 percent of all daytime network programming
• was first medium to introduce mass content aimed at children, thus recognizing children
as a viable commercial market
• was first to introduce situation comedies, a program genre that is a staple on television
• news came of age in the 1930s-40s as a result of serious world events
• personalized news, giving rise to trusted and well-known news celebrities
• changed how Americans spent their free time – by the 1930s-40s, radio had become the
prime source of American entertainment and news during the early evening hours known
as prime time
7. Television Broadcasting
Halted during WW II, television’s growth surged during the prosperous era of the early 1950s.
Pent up consumer demand fueled spending following the war years. Sales of TV sets took off
(it took only 10 years for TVs to be in 85 percent of U.S. homes), and an increasing amount of
American leisure time was now being spent in front of the TV set.
Cultural Impact of TV
Television is in 99 percent of all households, where the set is on for an average of over eight
hours a day. It has become our third largest time consumer (third only to sleep and work), and
in the process it has transformed almost every aspect of our culture, from politics, to religion, to
news, and to the way we learn.
Today we routinely expect live coverage of events from anywhere at anytime. Time and space
no longer seem important, and we have all come to share a national, even global, consciousness
through the common visual icons provided by television – President Kennedy's funeral, the
Apollo moon landings, the Challenger explosion, the planes striking the World Trade Center on
September 11, 2001, and the BP undersea oil leak.
THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION
Nicholas Negroponte, MIT’s Media Laboratory Director, summed up the digital revolution as the
difference between atoms and bits. Information, once solely comprised of atoms (material goods
such as paper, film, tapes, and CDs) and moved to and from the marketplace relatively slowly, is
rapidly being replaced by the instantaneous transfer of bits – electronic zeros and ones.
Digital technology is a system that encodes information – sound, text, data, graphics and video
— into a series of on-and-off pulses, denoted as zeros and ones. Once digitized, information can
easily be copied and transported at extremely low costs. Digital technology and the Internet have
triggered a revolution in the way information is stored and transmitted.
The Digital Revolution has not only affected mass media, but also general business owners.
It has empowered the individual audience member. There are numerous social and cultural
implications of the digital age:
• the notion of what “community” means may have to be rethought, with relationships that
can be formed on the basis of needs and interests rather than locale
• digital technology allows everyone to be a mass communicator, which is having a huge
impact on how people get news, opinion, and entertainment
• the digital age might mean significant changes for politics; perhaps representative
democracy could be rivaled by a digital democracy made possible by direct and
instantaneous links between the people and their government
• the arts have entered the digital age
8. On the downside:
• the digital revolution has resulted in an information glut
• there’s the problem of the digital divide, or the problem of the “have” and “have-nots” –
those who can afford the technology and have the training to use it, and those who can’t
Cell phones, laptop computers, and e-readers share common characteristics:
• they use wireless technology
• they are portable and allow users access to information from anywhere
• they are interconnected and allow users to hook into the worldwide phone network or the
• they blur the distinction between mass communication and interpersonal communication
The dominant TV and computer screens in American life have been joined by a third screen: cell
phones. This third screen could drastically transform traditional media and American culture.
Mobile media serve some of the traditional media functions discussed in Chapter 2.
Surveillance. Audiences no longer need to turn to radio or TV stations for weather, traffic,
sports, etc. They can subscribe to services which send the information they want to their cell
phones. Additionally, cell phones with still or video cameras can post images on the Web in
seconds, before the media can arrive on the scene. Text messages can spread news. In the future
we will all be reporters.
Entertainment Almost all cell phones come with games. Many have MP3 players. TV and film
content can be downloaded to phones and iPods.
Linkage. Being connected to millions of other people all over the world can make everyday life
easier. We can read documents, send email, etc. faster and less expensively than ever before. Cell
phones can increase safety and security – more than 30 percent of all 911 calls come from cell
Culture. New rules of etiquette were developed after cell phones became widespread (turn off
the phone in movies, don’t shout, etc.). The devices themselves have symbolic properties and
users customize their phones to reflect their individuality or status. Family life is altered – cell
phones have given rise to mobile parenting, or parental monitoring of children via phone rather
than in person. Cell phones have also created a phenomenon called time softening. You call
your friend to say you’re running late. If you’re in contact, are you really late?
9. However, mobile media have a downside. Driving while talking on the phone can lead to
accidents. Attacks have been coordinated over cell phones. Camera phones raise privacy issues.
Cell phones can intrude into conversations, classrooms and other interactions. And the new
mobile media can be expensive, potentially increasing the digital divide.
The first tool for social media was the telephone. The birth of the Internet opened up new
channels for social media: SixDegrees.com, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and
Twitter, among others. The primary impetus behind the growth of social media was the
development of the World Wide Web.
Although social media is still evolving, it:
• has changed the idea of community
• has changed how we define privacy
• has made history more permanent
Overall themes in mass communication within include:
• it’s difficult to accurately predict the ultimate use of any new medium
• it appears that the emergence of any new communication advance changes but does not
make extinct those advances that came before it
-- End of Chapter 3 --