I’ve now been blogging for just over a year, after starting out somewhat skeptical that this is a worthwhile medium at all. I am no longer skeptical that it’s worthwhile, but I’ve also become increasingly aware of its shortcomings. This post explores some theory behind the practice.
Something that has been instrumental in shaping my understanding of this method of communication is a presentation I did in Europe on Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. My research uncovered a paradigm of communication pioneered by Walter Ong that divides history into categories based upon the predominant communication method used within it. These epochs of communication are oral, scribal, print and electronic. Marshall McLuhan also deserves to be mentioned in the field of communication theory, particularly since his famous “the medium is the message” quote is much beloved by the emerging church crowd.
What is commonly taught about advancements in communication? Just that: that they are advancements. And of course they are in many respects. However, what we didn’t learn in school was that something has been lost in each stage.
Manuscripts represented a step forward over oral transmission, because information could be transmitted in a much more accurate fashion. However, communication becomes depersonalized when it is no longer between people. Communication becomes a one way street when it is done via manuscripts.
However, manuscripts were not in use by the general populace, allowing a strong oral-relational culture of communication to continue. The whole process of writing and copying manuscripts by scribes was simply too expensive and time-consuming for most people to have access. And then along comes Gutenberg and invents his printing press. (And yes, I’m aware that the Chinese invented it first. But they never really used the thing) Suddenly, manuscripts can be produced in mass quantities, allowing print culture to become accessible to all. It is no mere coincidence that the explosion of ideas during the Renaissance and the Reformation happened at this time. But now that print was accessible to the masses (more or less), communication became steadily more depersonalized. People now interacted with ideas, rather than with people.
Finally, we move into the electronic age of communication. Although it probably could be said to have started with the telegraph, I’ll simply equate electronic communication with the internet, since this long-winded post is getting to the point. Electronic communication represents an advancement over that of print because we have now returned to the two-way communication that characterized oral culture. But it also transcends all previous methods in that it is borderless. Right now, almost anybody on the planet could be reading this moments after it’s published, and interacting with me in the comments and via email. We take it for granted, but when surveyed against the broad swath of history, this is astounding.
But not all is roses here. Electronic communication is weak in that, although it is two-way, it is so in a diminished and weaker way as compared to face-to-face dialogue. Nothing will ever replace being able to look someone in the eyes. Another weakness of electronic communication is that its ease leads to sloppiness, hastiness and insensitivity. It is also often anonymous or deceptive, which is not an environment where meaningful relationships can easily be built.
Suffice it to say, blogging (as a component of electronic communication) is not the best thing ever. It has definite strengths and definite weaknesses. How to take those into account will be the subject of part 2.