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ROBERTA ASTROFF ON THE MASS MEDIA AND CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

Over the course of the history of mass communication, each new technology invented has generated concerns about how that technology will bring about social change. People often worry that the new technology will throw the current society off track. There is a "rhetoric of loss" that says that with each new media technology or communication technology we lose something that was provided by the old ways of communicating. Some people argue, for instance, that we lose something valuable when we have conversations over the telephone instead of face-to-face. This rhetoric of loss generally holds that new methods of communicating are of less value than the ones we've had in the past. Many of the worries, however, are based on assumptions that are not necessarily valid.

One such assumption is that technology is the most important factor in influencing how we communicate with one another. This idea is known as technological determinism. Television, for instance, is said to cause changes in our family lives. It is supposed to make us more violent and create a loss of literacy. Yet social scientists have never been able to prove that television has the power to do these things. They have tried, but the research is still very shaky. Still, the popular belief is that the technology is extremely powerful. It's as if TV somehow arose out of nowhere, and we are helpless in front of this machine.

When we talk this way -- when we embrace the notion of technological determinism -- one thing we lose sight of is the history of the technology. We lose sight of the specific societal interests and decisions and investments that led to the development of certain means of communication rather than others. People often say that Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press in 1450 caused Europe to change from a predominantly oral culture to a literate culture. But this assertion makes it sound as though Gutenberg was solely responsible for the print revolution; you also have to look at the history of technological, mercantile, and even social development at the time.

One of the major influences on the spread of the printing press across Europe was the Protestant Reformation. For the Protestants, unlike the Catholics, it was very important for individual believers to be able to read the Bible. Reading was taught as part of the Protestant revolution against the Catholic Church. And so you can't just say that the printing press caused the spread of literacy. You can also argue that the spread of literacy created a demand for reading material and thus contributed to the rise of the printing press.

Another assumption that people often make when they express concerns about technology is that new forms of communication totally replace the old forms. People commonly say that writing has displaced oral culture or that video has replaced print. What we should argue, instead, is that the older forms of communication never disappear entirely.

For example, before the development of writing, people remembered and passed along knowledge mostly through storytelling or rhyming or singing songs. And we still use these techniques with our preliterate populations. We teach very young children to sing the alphabet, because singing is a powerful memory tool.

Some scholars assert that the spread of literacy changed the very nature of learning. Their argument is that the development of writing, and later, print, established a distance between the teacher and the student. With the advent of printing, the teacher no longer had to be present to pass on information. Only the books had to be present. For the first time, learning could be a solitary experience rather than a necessarily interpersonal one.

That is certainly the case -- that students can now learn on their own, without having a teacher present. But the scholars who emphasize this change ignore the fact that, although we do make students sit by themselves and read books, they are still supposed to come to class and talk about what they have read. So there isn't as strong a division between learning in oral cultures and learning in literate cultures as these scholars imply.

If the old forms of communication never really disappear, what we have instead are changing combinations of forms. We are now hearing that we will no longer need newspapers or books. We will simply dial up The New York Times on our computers. But a new medium never displaces an old medium just because the new one is more technologically impressive. People like to read the newspaper over breakfast or during the commute to work, and that is just not going to happen with computers. And you can't take a computer to bed with you as you do a good mystery.

On the other hand, we are now using computers more and more to get access to information that is stored elsewhere. New media can, in fact, lead to different ways of producing, conserving, and distributing knowledge. But in general they don't work as better forms of old technology. Is the computer going to replace the book? Probably not. Has it already replaced the card catalog? Yes.

A LOT OF THE concerns over changes in communication technologies have to do with the fact that access to new forms of communication can give certain people new power. Take the example of literacy. On the one hand, some educational theorists talk convincingly of schooling -- of teaching people to read -- as a form of social integration and, therefore, of social control. As you teach people to read, you also teach basic social values. The colonial American schools, for instance, taught the alphabet through religious statements. "A" was not for Apple. "A" was for Adam.

Yet, on the other hand, teaching people to read can also be a liberating and empowering thing to do. You can see that in the history of who was not taught to read in the nineteenth century. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because that would have meant they could learn about the world and communicate through writing.

There was a similar attitude toward literacy in early modern England when the printing press arrived there. At least one person tried to figure out how to teach people to read the Bible without teaching them how to write. There was a fear that ordinary folks would gain too much power if you taught them how to write.

Today, historian Carla Hesse is worried about the loss of certain standards of legitimacy and authority on the Internet, a network that connects millions of computers with one another. Individual users on the Internet can connect and send messages back and forth with other users around the globe.

Hesse is concerned that absolutely anyone can post, or send, absolutely anything they want to on the Internet. She argues that with print there were some standards about what was published, and therefore, we could have greater confidence in what was written.

What she is saying is that, because of the Internet, we are in a time of danger, and the greater the number of people communicating, the greater the threat. She implies that there is danger if there is not control over who is allowed to write. Now, this is an argument that has been made before -- for instance, when ordinary people began to learn to write and read. That is certainly the argument that has been made in societies, such as the former Soviet Union, that have placed strict controls on communication -- societies that have locked up copying machines so that people could not produce their own newsletters and manuscripts. In essence, she is saying that there is danger in the democratization of communication.

On the other hand, I am in favor of the democratization of communication. One thing the Internet does is to increase people's ability to be producers, rather than just consumers, of communication. Because we do have controls over who gets to communicate -- not necessarily governmental controls, but rather controls by editors and publishers. As the well-known journalist and critic A.J. Liebling says, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one."

If there are things said on the Internet that have not passed through some form of certification, is that necessarily bad? There are all sorts of materials available through the print media that we question: pornography, or pamphlets produced by the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, I try to teach my students that even when they're reading traditionally -- reading books -- they should read critically. They should evaluate the arguments that are being presented instead of saying, "Someone published it, so it must be true."

Roberta Astroff is an assistant professor of communication. This lecture is drawn from her new course, History of Mass Media.


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