On Blogging: Part 1

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.

Communication ParadigmSomething 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.

6 responses to “On Blogging: Part 1”

  1. You make some worthwhile observations, but I can’t help but feel that your diagram omits a form of communication that should occur between Print and Electronic: Transmission.

    I think it is rather easy to establish the significance of difference in transmitted media (ie television, radio) from print and from electronic (which, as you’ve defined it, is confined to the internet). Compared to transmitted content, electronic creates advancements in choice, flexibility and ultimatelty, response. Compared to print, the transmission allows content to be made more ‘real’ – human expression, voice and inflection. Pictures, faces, events bring us closer to the people involved, they are no longer just abstract and distant words on a page.

    I’ve always hated that quote by McLuhan “The Medium is the message.” No, the medium is the medium and the message is the message. It’s that kind of nonsensical postmodern double-speak that must be profound because no-one understands it.

    According to my mistress, Wikipedia, ‘ “The media is the message” is a phrase meaning that available media shape human activity, more so than what media are used for. ‘ – an observation I wholeheartedly agree with yet cannot fathom how the statement “The media is the message” is supposed to contain. Simply put, that quote represents a terrible effort at communication on McLuhan’s part.

  2. Good observations Trav. This is an old paradigm that predates the internet. Within it, transmission would properly fall under the “electronic” category, which is admittedly rather broad. For the sake of expedience, I did not include all of the electronic forms of communication in between the telegraph and the internet. Perhaps a new division is necessary to differentiate between one-way and two-way electronic media.

    I agree that McLuhan makes a rhetorical overstatement, but it leads you away from a notion that the medium is some neutral, inert thing. Rather, I would say that the medium profoundly shapes the message (and vice-versa) in ways that are not always so simple to understand. If this is the case, then the medium is not merely the medium and the message is not merely the message. They are intertwined.

  3. Absolutely. That the medium influences the message there can be no doubt, but McLuhan’s assertion that the medium _is_ the message is far too strong. The form of communication does not replace or overpower what is being communicated, even if it does affect it.

    The advent of the internet is further distinguished from the traditional broadcast medium in the unparalleled level of choice given to its viewers. Even 500 channel cable packages cannot compete with Google for helping people find and view what they want to see, to know. The internet is also remarkable in how it blends the different forms of traditional media: You can watch Youtube or read Wikipedia. Listen to Podcasts or view webcams.

    I can’t help but feel that we still have no idea what sort of impact the Internet is going to have on our society. The Internet is amazingly young, I’d estimate that it’s only enjoyed mass, critical adoption for about 10 years now. Its impact on our culture is just huge, and we are now feeling the repercussions. It’s shaping property law, bringing new aspects to freedom of speech, and letting us communicate with people and cultures that was never possible before. It’s giving us instant access to huge repositories of knowledge. We’ve been exposed to points of view and opinions we’d never encounter in our day-to-day lives. It took more than 40 years for the affect of the automobile on society to become clear, more for things like the telephone and the printing press. The internet potentially represents one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and when you realize how blind we are moving ahead, it’s rather frightening.

  4. You’re right in saying that we have absolutely no idea how huge the internet is going to be. Once it reaches the level where its usage happens on an unconscious level, then we’ll see the power that it truly has.

    On McLuhan: I wish I knew enough context to know what exactly he is intending. As with any quote taken out of context, it’s so easy to misunderstand. Is he making identification between the two, or is he making a metaphor?

  5. […] I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of technology on our lives, particularly in my recent posts “On Blogging” Parts 1 and 2. I’m no Luddite, but I definitely know that I could stand to spend a whole lot less time on my computer and online. I realized the other day that I read much more on the web than I do from books, and I don’t think that that’s a good thing. […]

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