Technology & the Mass Media Research Paper Starter

Technology & the Mass Media

(Research Starters)

The evolution of technology, mass media, and society is deeply intertwined. Technological advances flourished with the invention of the printing press, a process of social transformation that enabled scientific and political revolutions by promoting the ideas of the nation-state and democracy. Radio and television have enabled the propaganda of authoritarian leaders on the one hand, and the world of advertising and consumerism in modern capitalism on the other. We are in the information age, with generations of digital natives coming of age.

Keywords Cultural Capital; Digital Divide; Digital Inequality; Digital Native; Digital Society; E-Government; E-Learning; I-Reporter; Information & Communication Technology (ICT); Information Society; Media



Recent decades have seen a drastic change in the technological distribution of information, a change that has had a lasting effect on our social structures and cultural memory. A similar change occurred nearly 600 years ago with the advent of the printing press, though less rapidly. With Johann Gutenberg's printing press, which was modeled on Chinese presses and popularized through clever marketing, the technology became a tool for mass-production.

However, it took the better part of another century for the technology to become a "mass medium," meaning that the majority of people accepted the content it produced as possessing a certain truth value. In other words, a long process of validation had to occur before it became socially accepted to reference printed content as a source of knowledge. Only at the conclusion of this process could the printing press itself become a motor of social transformation.

Prior to this acceptance of the printed word, writing itself had little value in comparison to the spoken word. Even Plato, in the voice of Socrates, had initially voiced skepticism about the written word, arguing that it would cause the mind and memory to deteriorate. However, when writing itself was accepted into societies, it changed the social structure insofar that it enlarged the social relations both spatially and temporally. Spatially, insofar as it became possible to transport lengthy and complicated messages over longer distances, thereby, for example, increasing the territory over which a monarch could effectively rule. Temporally, insofar as it became possible for a writer to transcend the present moment by leaving a message for a future reader, as well as making the message accessible to an unintended reader.

But up until the times when the printed word became widely accessible and socially acceptable, reading and writing were highly specialized practices that many cultures and societies permitted only their ruling elites and clergy to engage in. With the ready availability of written material through the printing press, though, the pressure to attain literacy grew among a wider audience while the output of information gradually increased.

From Scripture to Printing

In her seminal, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elisabeth Eisenstein described in meticulous detail the effects of the shift from scripture to printing, including the influence this technology had on the rise of the major movements that shaped early modernity (1980). Actually, only with the printing press and the mass production of literature did concepts like the author and authorship, the authenticity of writing, and the reader, readership and audience — concepts that we now take for granted — arise. These concepts as we know them today did not really exist in the world before the printing press. With its invention, though, the processes of standardization began to restructure the intellectual world. In a way, before the printing press, there existed several "Aristotles" or "Platos," and several Holy Scriptures. Depending on where one resided in the world, the scriptures could have significant variations, and the Aristotle one encountered in Paris was not the same Aristotle encountered in Rome. With the advent of the printing press, however, a technology arose that could create the one, canonical "Holy Bible" or "Aristotle" that we know today.

With these developments concerning authorship and audience, the idea of the "public" emerged, which was a necessary condition for the development and proliferation of the ideas of a "nation" and a "modern democracy." The structural transformation of the public sphere, as Juergen Habermas would come to call it, began during this time and progressed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within the culture of the tea-circle and the salon. The bourgeois, or burgher class, during this period had ample leisure time to discuss the formation of the "nation" and the ideas of "republic" and "democracy." Alongside the formation of "public sphere" was the emergence of a new conception of "privacy": when "private citizens" came together and "reason" became the tool of science and the control of state power, it was thought that both the church's and the monarchy's power would be demystified.

With the twentieth century, however, this public sphere was gradually eliminated by capitalist consumerism as corporations began to take control of the old and the new mass media like radio, movies, and television. According to Habermas, the critical public, recruited from active citizens, was transformed by capitalist consumerism into a passive consumerist mass public. Thereby, people turned inward in pursuit of self-interest and instrumentalist reason, discarding a consensus-based communicative reason, which, according to Habermas, could further the democratic welfare of society and its citizens. Today, in light of the effects other media have had on society, the nature of the Internet is still hotly disputed, with some critics seeing it as a beacon of hope for direct democracy and others as a symbol of increasing consumerism.

Further Insights

Mass Media

The mass media has played and continues to play an important role in the formation and proliferation of democratic and liberal ideas. Next to the legislative, executive, and judicative branches of government, the media have been named the fourth power. As such, modern democracy cannot remain unaffected by the technological changes that have transformed media.

Many social theorists have stated their high hopes that the new information and communication technologies (IT/ICT) will offer new forms of democracy. E-Government and E-Learning, they claim, will not only greatly improve government efficiency, but also enable entirely new and improved forms of democratic participation. At the same time, though, critics such as Jean Baudrillard have voiced concern about the effects that digital technology will have on our perception of reality, arguing that it will turn reality itself into a mere simulation. Most perversely, Baudrillard has argued that it could even transform reality into the simulation of a simulation. His position is typified in his statement that the First Gulf War of 1990 was an event that actually "did not take place," for the media presented recycled images of the war in real time, thereby creating the notion of two enemies fighting, while in reality very little was happening on the ground. The media thus created the simulation of the war, as the war existed only in the real time transmissions of the mass media.

Positions such as Baudrillard's are often decried as being merely a deeply philosophical, speculative account. On a different and more sociological note, others have argued that the development of mass media has affected the metaphors and symbols that structure the narratives of biographies and identities (Stingl, 2007).

Effects of Mass Media on Identity

These effects of the mass media on identity can also be seen in the work...

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