Electronic and digital media and their precursors


Electronic and digital media and their precursors

by Dr. Anthony Löwstedt

Webster Vienna Private University

anthony.loewstedt [at] webster.ac.at

Gutenberg’s printing press is widely considered central for ICT development, and electronic or digital media and programs are often described as the greatest inventions since print (Eisenstein, 2005; Kovarik, 2011; Parry, 2011). This paper considers whether this comparison may be categorically mistaken. My hypothesis is that the invention of programmed electronic or digital media, or ‘prography’, is much more profitably compared to the invention of writing, phonography (some 5,200 years ago), than to print (around 570 year ago), and that the importance of print has been hyped. From this perspective, print is merely a corollary to phonography.

First, movable types existed already in Sumerian and later varieties of cuneiform. Printing of paper with movable types and ink actually took place in China and Korea from the early first millennium CE at the latest. The changes that Gutenberg initiated were momentous, but they depended on pre-existing technologies and practices and had mainly commercial, ideological, political (including both democratic/egalitarian and hierarchic/centralizing) and other non-technological attributes, which coincided with phonographic literacy (along with scientific and industrial knowledge and practices) spreading widely throughout Europe and the world (Gunaratne, 2001; Jensen, J., 1998).

Second, Gutenberg’s innovation was about saving time and energy, reaching larger audiences, making quantitative gains rather than qualitative change (Boyd-Barrett, 2015; Jensen, C., 2001; Löwstedt & Mboti, 2017). In other words, Gutenberg was a businessman, not a revolutionary. Prography, on the other hand, largely replaces phonography, script as well as print, with electronic audio and video/photo recording and dissemination, which is a qualitative difference. Whereas phonography enables direct symbolization of all grammatical categories of language and many sound features, prography also accurately captures many additional details of the speech act, including melody, accent, dynamics, pauses (audio), as well as body language (video), And not only speech acts: any act, pseudo-act, event or pseudo-event may be shared and/or archived with prographic technology.

The term ‘mass’, thirdly, is relative, not absolute. Mass communication was not invented centuries, but millennia ago. Masses of people witnessed cultural events, rituals, and symbols during ancient times, simultaneously or serially, for example in Rome’s Colosseum, using hieroglyphic script, or in decorated ceramic tiles that were “mass-produced” in Mesopotamia already 15,000 years ago (Read, 2010).

Finally, people almost always used the same script, whether Chinese, Korean. Latin, Greek, Ethiopian, Arabic, etc., before and after print had been introduced. In terms of the basic ICT, the script, very little changed after the introduction of print, which is really an information and communication technology of a secondary and derived order.

This paper further explores a theory proposed in Löwstedt, Anthony: ‘Developmental Stages of Information and Communication Technology’, Communication Theory, 2020, (accepted with minor revisions and forthcoming).