Cave painting is one of the earliest records of a symbolic language. These ancient markings are remarkable because here, for the first time, humans began storing information outside of their living body. These first etchings on rock walls store information through time, still there thousands of years later. Over time, humans moved beyond rock walls. They began to share information on other materials they found or made: grave stones, clay tablets, papyrus, scrolls and early hand-written books.
Once information moved onto these smaller objects, it became mobile. Importantly, these were symbolic technologies. They relied on the human using their own body to perceive and translate the world into a hand-drawn picture or written script. During this symbolic period, humans also began to experiment with methods for distributing information across space. For example, by attaching messages to carrier pigeons or encoding messages in smoke signals.
This ability to record, store and share communication in material form distinguishes us from all other intelligent species on the planet. It has enabled us to build complex societies. For instance, trade could evolve in part because we could keep track of who purchased what and who owed who money.
With the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, a profound shift takes place. The era of technical media begins. Symbolic media technologies always depended on a living human to encode information about reality. A human listens to a conversation with their ear, and records information about that conversation in a symbolic code - a language made up of letters of an alphabet - using their hand on a piece of paper. If that information needed to be reproduced, a human would have to copy it out by hand.
The technical phase marks a crucial breakthrough because this is the period in which humans invent a series of machines that can mechanically reproduce symbols, transmit information over space, and capture and store light and sound. These machines are important because they effectively take over, or replicate, processes once confined to the human body. The first of these machines is the printing press, developed in Germany in the mid 1400s. By enabling the mass reproduction of symbols, the printing press generated new forms of media, and with them, new cultural practices and formations. Mass produced books and newspapers began to shape new kinds of public discussions and ideas. The printing press was instrumental in the religious, scientific economic and political revolutions that took place from the 1400s to the 1800s.
The nineteenth century had a dramatic change in store. At the beginning of the 19th century the telegraph was invented: the first form of electronic communication. This is crucial, not just because it enables information to travel over space at speed, but also because it sets off a process through which humans begin to think about electrical networks as a means for distributing information. Importantly though, the telegraph, like the printing press, extended symbolic modes of communication. The printing press mechanically reproduced symbols, the telegraph electronically distributed symbols.
With the invention of the camera in the mid-nineteenth century humans had created a device which could store reality itself. Think about that, the camera could capture an image of the world without that image needing to pass through a human body first. Prior to the camera, if you wanted to store an image of the world light had to pass through your living eye, optical nerve and into your brain. And then, you needed to use your hand to draw that image on a material like paper. These images were always a product of human perception. They were an impression of reality. With the camera though, light didn’t need to pass through the human eye and brain. It passed through a glass lens, where via a chemical reaction it was stored on metal and eventually celluloid film. The camera stored one medium in another. It stored light in metal. What the camera did for light, the phonograph did for sound later in the 19th century. The phonograph stored sound in wax.
Many inventions followed that improved the capacity to capture light and sound. In the late 19th century, inventors experimented with tools like the zoopraxiscope and kinetiscope which moved a sequence of still images past the human eye to create the effect of a moving reality.
If we had developed machines that could store light and sound, then the next move of the technical era was to develop methods for transmitting reality over space. The telephone was the first technology to transmit human voice. Alexander Bell made the first phone call in 1876, announcing ‘Watson, come here I want to see you’. The 19th century ends with the invention of radio, which is significant because in the 20th century media technologies that capture and distribute light and sound would become central to the exercise of power in mass societies. All of these technical media free up in different ways the need to be bodily present in the act of communication. In essence the tools we’ve crafted to communicate ‘take over’ meaning-making functions at this point. This greatly accelerates the ability of media technologies to transcend time and space, beyond the limits of the human body and senses.
From the telegraph at the beginning of this century, to the radio at its end, these technologies enabled trans-continental forms of empire building and the colonisation and governance of huge numbers of people and regions of the world.
This brings us to the 20th century, and the mass media systems that emerge with industrialisation, urbanisation, and the development of large, complex mass societies. From the early twentieth century media becomes institutionalised and industrialised. In this period, cinema, newspapers, radio and television emerge as industrial-scale enterprises funded by advertising, consumers and governments. This period in the history of media technologies and practices is important to us for three reasons. First, this is when modern media industries and professions emerge. Second, this is when media become central to the everyday lives of people who live in mass societies. And third, this is when media become key institutions in the political and economic processes of society.
Once people ‘tuned in’ to a technology like radio everyday, they began to be incorporated into the larger political and economic systems of their society. The radio taught them how their society worked and what their place in it was. During the first half of the century industries like radio, film, mass-circulation newspapers and, by the 1950s, television became critical to the formation and maintenance of the culture of mass societies. These institutions were remarkable because they were the moment when humans began to use technology to produce and manage culture on an industrial scale.
In the second half of the 20th century, we begin to see the emergence of more customisable and mobile forms of media technology. Devices and systems such as tape recorders, the Walkman, VHS, and cable TV that emerge from the 1970s onwards enable consumers to have more control over where, when, and how they consume media. This leads to a more fragmented and customised media culture. The Walkman enables people to stop listening to the radio, and start playing cassettes that contain a personally curated playlist. Media becomes mobile and personalised. Digital technologies and the internet – in development since the second world war but increasingly commonplace in the everyday lives of the general population from the late 20th century – have greatly accelerated this process of fragmentation and customisation. The internet, developed during the Cold War as part of US military planning, becomes a public form of media in the 1990s. It’s accessibility is bound up with the arrival of personal computers in our homes during the same period. The first phase of the web, web 1.0, was a largely open-access, distributed and non-commercial forms of networked communication based around typed speech: email, bulletin boards and chat rooms. By the early 21st century, web 1.0 gave way to the highly commercialised, participatory and data-driven web 2.0. The shift is marked by the penetration of the internet into everyday life, our participatory publication of information about ourselves via blogs and social media sites, and the emergence of major commercial media platforms that dominate the development of the web. These major platforms emerge at the turn of the century. Amazon in 1997, Google in 1998, Facebook in 2004, Netflix as an on-demand streaming platform in 2007, and the smartphone in 2007.
With the smartphone the web became a participatory and data-driven media infrastructure permanently attached to our bodies. The participatory culture and data-driven customisation of these web platforms marks a dramatic shift from the mass production of culture in the twentieth century. Media now watch and respond to us, as much as we watch them. From cave painting to the smartphone we can see a process through which media becomes deeply entangled with humans: their bodies, imaginations and ways of life.