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Employees of the «Detroit News» telegraphing messages, 1918. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14591278788/

Employees of the «Detroit News» telegraphing messages, 1918. Image source: Flickr


Media Revolutions and other Revolutions


A slightly shorter German version of this text was published in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, No. 17, 2017.

Classical media theory was developed in North America shortly after World War II, when the existing media were rigorously kept apart by their technical standardisations and their politically regulated forms of organisation.1 At the time, a continued existence of separate media, each embodying its own individual language that would determine the practices and messages of its end-users, seemed evident, both for technical and for institutional reasons. Nowhere was this state of affairs more poignantly expressed than in the introduction of Marshall McLuhan’s Report on Project on Understanding New Media, a research report for the U.S. Office of Education which eventually paved the way for his main work in media theory, entitled Understanding Media:

Our media have always constituted the parameters and the framework for the objectives of our Western World. But the assumptions and parameters projected by the structures of the media on and through our sensibilities have long constituted the over-all patterns of private and group associations in the West. The same structuring of the forms of human association by various media is also true of the non-Western world as of the lives of preliterate and archaic man. The difference is that in the West our media technologies from script to print, and from Gutenberg to Marconi, have been highly specialized.2

McLuhan’s sentences show that media theory was looking for structure: the structuring of the human senses and of the sociality achieved through media. Moreover, this kind of media theory not only presented a search for structures, but was itself based on a specific structure or grid. On the one hand, there is an invariant, which precedes the specialization of media and which McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter called «Acoustic Space.»3 Since the 1950s, this invariant capacity of human interaction which remains untouched by later technical specializations both in the West and the non-West, is also being discussed as «Orality». This invariant enters a relationship with what we call an independent variable: the historical sequence of media inventions, the emergence of new media and their particular media techniques, in the West. The combination of both results in a number of dependent variables which are contingent upon changes in the independent variables, namely the perceptual capacities (or «sensibilities»), the patterns of sociability («forms of human association»), and the «parameters and frameworks» of world views.

In this kind of media theory, the structure of media is determined by the constitution or modification of the dependent variables by changes in the independent variables, in their combination with the invariant. For want of a better term and to indicate its historical status, I shall call this structuralist perspective «classical media theory». Its ingredients and its shared orientation can be found in the works of Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter in Canada, later with Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard in France, and finally with Vilém Flusser and Friedrich Kittler in the German-speaking countries. Classical media theory was foundational for the constitution of media studies, and it remains a powerful legacy.

Today, classical media theory has been thrown into a crisis. There are at least three reasons for this change: Firstly, between McLuhan and Kittler, it was based on fundamental asymmetries, among them an unperturbed Western success story of exclusivity, which resulted in its being problematic or of being outright ignored in many of those fields of science and technology research that had dedicated themselves to symmetrical representations of success and failure, and West and Rest. Secondly, classical media theory always promised and sketched a grand holistic narrative, which in its synoptic qualities had clearly inherited the ambitions of a «philosophy of history». Therefore, it was often enough ignored and sometimes explicitly refuted by history proper. The third, and possibly the most significant problem arose when classical media theory was unable to deal with digital media. Due to the spatial limitations of this paper, I will leave the first two reasons for other occasions and directly address the third, the non-event that possibly became the biggest disappointment for my generation of media scholars:

The success and the versatility and instability of computerised media and digital technologies has made the supposition of a causal or historical impact of media, digital media, and even of digital media technology quite problematic. This appears paradoxical, as it is obvious that it was the success of digital media which made it increasingly difficult for media studies to speak of the unambiguous evidence of a «media impact». Especially the traditional notion of the relationship between independent and dependent variables no longer seems to hold true: Do media form social practices or are they, meanwhile, only brought to life by their socio-technical modelling, by the the objectives and misappropriations of specific media practices? When «apps» are configured with a particular applicability and, thus, a particular «message», or even very specific social patterns and practices in mind, is it then the message that configures the medium? At least, there is no denying that «apps» are conceptualized in exactly this way: from the desired operations or practices all the way to the settings (which then, of course, can be transferred into practical misappropriations). Moreover, this is not only true for apps but for all other variable platform-functions and their usages.

After and within digital media, it seems to have become difficult if not impossible to conceive of or to describe media practices as dependent variables of existing media. After their computerization, media appear to be reduced to media genres, depending on constantly changing media practices that keep them going. On the material level itself, there is nothing but different bundles of operational chains that are run by various networked processing units made up of hardware and software artifacts. Once you choose an old or new medium on the basis of networked computers, the relevant media genre is reduced to a practical bundling and framing of operational procedures and preliminarily offered services. Whether you approach the issue from a developer's or an end-user's point of view, from the perspective of production, distribution, or reception: It is only by way of media practices that the position and nature of the medium can be defined now.

It is not very difficult, then, to see the damage that has been done to the traditional structure of classical media theory. Where exactly is the structure of media or the promise of an asymmetrical structuring of media theory, when one can no longer distinguish the dependent and the independent variables or put them into an asymmetrical order, the media and the practices with their worldviews, sensibilities, and social patterns?

This revaluation does not only seem to concern digital media but all media, including all media of the past. If we can no longer think of media as independent variables vis-a-vis dependent practices, the assumption that there once was a time when media predetermined or defined their media practices is open for reconsideration. How can this idea be defended or refuted? How plausible is the claim of classical media theory that media are independent variables or, in other words, that they are historical triggers and driving forces resulting from particular consequences, or prime movers?

Neolithic Revolution, Urban Revolution, Writing

Are or have media ever been primary triggers of historical transformations or of fundamental changes? This question does not aim at defining the boundary work of disciplinary responsibilities, and it is not meant to refer to the common academic experience that our most cherished independent variables only form part of other disciplines' dependent variables. On the contrary, as I will show, what is at stake here is a central part of the foundation of media studies: the materiality of communication, the history of the inventions of technical media, and the relationship between media infrastructures and other infrastructures.

The idea of media as prime movers is first of all a question of temporal scaling. If we focus on a singular and overall successful media invention and examine its consequences, we automatically encounter all those practices, ways of perception and traditions which, without the particular medium, would have been impossible. From this perspective, media appear as necessary conditions of further possibilities and, thus, also as triggers for historical transformations of perception, of sociality, and of worldviews. However, in this kind of representation, there is no comparison with other factors, and media are viewed in methodical isolation. If we, however, take the longue durée of history into account, the history of mankind, the last ten thousand years, then the claim that media have constituted a primary factor of significant changes that can be methodically isolated to a degree that changes of perception, of sociality, and of worldviews could be attributed to the media and to the media only, becomes much more problematic. In a historiography of the longue durée it makes more sense to first treat specific media inventions as dependent variables, notwithstanding the fact that media, after their invention (under specific conditions), develop their own momentum, which may they then can exert a powerful influence on some select dependent variables.

In order to develop this perspective, I shall refer to three media revolutions, all of which have been acknowledged as genuine media revolutions ever since the late 19th century:

            1. The invention of writing or, more specifically: the invention of sustainable written languages;

            2. The invention of the printing press or, more specifically: the invention and world-wide distribution of European book printing; and

            3. The modern inventions of media of reproduction and technologies of telecommunications; together with the consequences of all three revolutions for the digital media of the present.

In all three cases, we can discern the same sequence, particularly when we apply a very basic economic classification,4 namely that of a primary, a secondary, and a tertiary sector:

The initial revolution or transformation takes place in the primary sector, i.e. in the production of food and in the acquisition of raw materials and their processing. In consequence, an expansion and spatial reorganization of the secondary sector, i.e. in the production, consumption, and distribution of produced goods and artefacts, occurs. This reorganization of the secondary sector eventually causes a media revolution in the tertiary sector, depending on whether the accumulated demand of services favours or initiates new media inventions. It is only on this basis that the media revolutions listed above become the source of new modifications and specializations of worldviews, of sociality, and of sensibilities, i.e. on the basis of already consolidated infrastructures of the primary and secondary sectors and their permanent availability. Thus, if primary and secondary infrastructures erode, the existence of the particular media built on their base may also be endangered.

The starting point for this historiography lies with the invention of written languages which have been much more thoroughly and comparatively investigated now than at the beginning of media theory, especially concerning the comparisons of the Middle East with China and Central America.5 The basic sequence, however, was already established by the Marxist archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe in the 1930s and has not been falsified since:

The development of a written language depends on what Childe called the «Neolithic Revolution»6 , i.e. the increasing domestication of animals and plants and the development of populations that depended on agriculture and animal farming. This transformation took place in the primary sector or, rather, it created the primary sector for the coming millennia.

It was only on this comprehensive footing that a second revolution which Gordon Childe termed «Urban Revolution»7 could take place, based on an expansion and concentration of manufacturing industries, trade and warfare, i.e. the secondary and tertiary sectors.

And it is only on this basis that the invention of written languages takes place,8 only in some cases of urbanisation, but not in others. Therefore, the most difficult question in the comparison of the development of writing and written languages may be asked: Under which circumstances of urbanisation is a comprehensive written language – a way of writing that can generally transcribe and articulate all that which is spoken – developed or not? The answer has so far remained elusive, but at least it has become easier to spell out the necessary conditions for such a development:

In all cases, the full-fledged written language remained a privilege for a specialised elite for several millennia. This elite was one that both governed and served the governing bodies and which had no big interest in simplifying the different strands of writing or the written language itself – after all, writing was concerned with matters of the elites of power, with its continuing development and the consolidation of its power, and was not meant to become user-friendly for everybody. Technical simplifications of writing took place only for strong social or economic reasons, e.g. in the invention of the alphabet by the trading peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. The most radical simplifications of writing and of written languages took place where children or foreign traders or a whole generation of adults were forced to learn a grammar or an orthography that simply was too complicated for them, e.g. in cases of trade relationships or territorial conquests. We are the heirs of all those exceptions where simplifications did occur and combine, i.e. of cursive writing, of the alphabet, of the introduction of spacing between words, of the English and the Chinese language, the disappearance of calligraphic writing, and the rhetorical plain style.9 There are no reasons that are simply inherent inherent in language or in writing that could account for the occurrence of these simplifications and, particularly, for their accumulation. The bifurcations of this incremental history were bound to pathways of political and economic forms of organization.

The layering of the three sectors remained a precondition for later inventions and reductions, and changes in the first and second sector affected the development of writing throughout its history. An expansive domestication is a necessary precondition for the formation of towns and cities. The formation of towns and cities, e.g. in the form of garrison cities with temples in Mesopotamia and China, is a necessary precondition for the development of a written language. In that which we subsume under the umbrella term «towns» or «cities», writing can develop or not, and it may or may not develop into a written language.10 If it happens, a well-developed tertiary sector is necessary, i.e. an interplay between traders, rulers and administrative elites, which can take a variety of forms, such as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, or Central America. All further populations who adopt or invent their own ways of writing and their own written languages are positioned in a systematic relationship to the existing agricultural or later empires and their urban centres. The apparent exceptions of individual inventions of writing11 on the fringes of colonial empires are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule, and the same is true for the destruction and erosion of writing:

In the history of mankind, written languages developed on the organizational basis of the three sectors; and in cases of a shrinking division of labour or of external destruction declined in the same fashion. There is no reason for hunter-gatherers to develop a written language, because there is nothing to organize that makes sense by doing it in written form only. Thus, a return to hunting and gathering almost certainly meant the loss of literacy, at least after two generations. The expansion or the shrinking of agricultural productivity, of the trade of goods and the prosperity of towns and cities – as can be shown for the European development between the late Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages12 – may, accordingly, be correlated with the ups and downs of literacy and its educational capacities.

Plague and Gunpowder, the Power of Cities, and the Printing Press

The European invention of the printing press directly connects to these questions of correlation.13 After all, the invention of the printing press is the invention of a new variant of writing and written language. In fact, in the wake of the invention of the printing press, new written languages are still being invented and codified until today.

As is the case for each media revolution, the question of its time-scale is crucial. After the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, the potential advantage of printing over manual copying methods as well as the general future of the new technology remained an open question for at least two decades.14 Moreover, a long-term perspective can show that the media revolution would lie particularly in the combination of printing and postal traffic. Neither the printing of books and documents alone nor the improvement of the postal service would constitute a media revolution, but rather the publicly available combination of both: the ability for anyone to copy and disseminate documents, provided they could pay for the service. Therefore, one could actually speak of a «double revolution, »15 which does not make it any easier to reconstruct the part of the printing press in this process. What happened to the triad of domestication, urbanization, and media invention on the path to printing?

The easiest would be a smooth route of the following kind: first, the invention and the implementation of the three-year crop rotation in the 12th century,16 i.e. a revolution in the primary sector of agricultural production; then an economic boom in trade, which makes the secondary sector bloom and increases the urban population, and finally, the printing press.

This narrative is neither quite false nor quite true but it must be supplemented by two particular factors that provide the necessary key for the breakthrough of a new copying technique: The late Middle Ages goes through a unprecedented demographic bump, namely as a result of the bubonic plague in the 14th century;17 and despite or even partly because of this demographic decline the towns and cities grow and, at the same time, a number of new universities are founded. The key moment lies in this demographic bend: at a time when first gun powder and later the printing press were adopted in Europe, agricultural productivity and food supply in the middle of the continent had hit an all-time absolute peak for almost one thousand years, since the survivors of the plague, the townsfolk and city dwellers, and the university founders among them did not only enjoy the luxury and the excess possessions of those who had died, but also had the best soils and all the venison from the uncultivated lands and forests which, by then, had become overgrown, to themselves. Agricultural and hunting productivity is at an all-time high (which causes horrendous sales crises and a rural exodus), but not due to any technical improvements. Because of the increased frequency of trade, as well as the founding of universities and the growth of administrative work, the growing urban populations create an increased demand for copies of existing manuscripts and administrative forms. This demand meets the invention of the printing press – which was, quite reasonably, given the circumstances of urban developments, initially conceived as a luxury good and only in a second step turned into a means of textual reproduction for all paying customers, invented right in the center of the central axis of communication and transportation in Europe.18

Thus, the sequence of invention of new written languages remains clearly visible also in this ‹crooked› case: There is a singular instance of an increase in productivity in the primary sector; never before and never after are towns, cities, and urban citizens wealthier, more powerful and more mobile. The radically urbanized secondary sector grows and creates (with its new universities and offices) a growing tertiary sector, whose demand turns new manual techniques of textual reproduction into a lucrative area of invention and into an object of speculation, not only with regard to reproducibility itself, but soon after also relating to public postal traffic.

This «double revolution» of mobility and reproducibility, however, remained tied to an important limitation: Neither the speed of the postal service nor the reproductive quality of the printing press could be significantly improved between Gutenberg and Klopstock. Rather, both parameters remained static – with the permanent danger of potential losses and decline –, not only on the scale of the times, but on a global scale: between the Roman Empire and Venetian secret service traffic, the maximum speed of couriers stayed the same;19 and the reproductive quality of the printing press, too, was not necessarily superior to that of manually copied scripts and their copy workshops in the late Middle Ages.20

It is important to keep this static limitation of the second media revolution in mind, as otherwise factors might be introduced that distort an evaluation of the modern media revolution. The media history of the longue dureé is not characterized by a continuously pursued increase of speed and by an improved spatial dissemination of identical inscriptions, not until recently. Courier infrastructures and copying capacities went through cycles of decay and erosion in the Old World as in the New World. Modern media inventions have not emanated from a steady incremental improvement of older media but from entirely new preconditions, the starting point of which, in turn, cannot be explained from a standpoint inherent in the media.

The printing press is a case in point (but so is the invention of lithography): There was no incremental progress in the organisation and the results of printing for at least three centuries. It is only through industrial printing, i.e. the steam press, that the production of identical copies with identical pages in any desired number comes to be realised, something that had not been possible for centuries despite all those promises from the craft to the contrary. Generally speaking: In industrialized countries, modern media inventions come to be realized on the basis of industrialized materials and procedures. It is only on this basis that they become the starting point for new production processes and specialized refinements of media technologies.

In modernity, too, then, the general development follows the sequence outlined by V. Gordon Childe. First, there is a transformation in the primary sector, especially a new level of energy consumption, namely of fossil fuels, which help to create entirely new material foundations for materials, the extraction and production of chemicals and metals, but also for agriculture and forestry and nutrition in general. In a second step, partially already because of a preliminary expansion and willingness to invest, a reorganization of produced goods and their transport takes place. During the 19th century, this reorganization causes entirely new requirements for the administration and the management of the transportation of goods and people and, thus, creates a management revolution or administrative revolution in the tertiary sector.21 Only in the third phase, those transformations of the primary and secondary sector trigger an explosion of media inventions at the end of the 19th century, first in the area of office technology and laboratory equipment, which only later are transformed into mass media and communication media. Therefore, the modern media revolution, looking back at its material and organizational foundations, evolves as a third step as well, after a long period of improvements and investments in the primary and the secondary sector. It is only then that this media revolution enters the world that we have known ever since, a world in which the invention of new media techniques has remained a profitable activity and an area of innovation that has apparently taken on a life of its own and which has become indispensible for all organisations of power.

Industrial Revolution, Administrative Bottlenecks, Media Innovation

This narrative and its sequential arrangement will obviously provoke many counter arguments. Isn't it the printing press that, as an «agent of change,»22 triggered the scientific revolution and, in its wake, the industrial revolution? This historical hypothesis has, however, given way to scepticism in both research literatures. Of course, from its beginning, the spreading of industrialisation was accelerated by media, firstly and crucially in all involved countries by a reorganisation of the postal service and later, in its global interconnectedness, by the new technology of telegraphy. However, both old and new media of the 19th century could increasingly rely on the production of industrial goods for their own technical perfection; and media prototypes were created in the later 19th century with the idea of their industrial production in mind. For a long time, it remains hard to find which industrial goods should be indebted to a media invention for their existence, while the opposite indebtedness is more easily recognisable. The British transport revolution of the late 18th century precedes any media revolution and improves the postal service. Only the steam press of the 19th century delivers on the promise of the printing press to create identical materials in high circulation; because of its industrial constitution. The railroad and globalised telegraph cables require the construction of corresponding factories. The hubs of intercontinental telegraph cables were located where the fossil fuels for the steam ships were stored. All modern media networks are based on the fact that their spare parts can be, like any other industrialised artefact, standardised, traded, and produced. The efficiency of our linguistic standardisations, too, remains tied to the industrialisation of printing.

To summarize: Industrialisation did not start with media, and its organisational requirements were initially satisfied with the help of already existing media. Then, existing media were industrially transformed (as, for example, the printing press), and newly invented media were refined by industrial production and laboratory procedures (such as the telegraph). This helped to create new media apparatuses from new materials by initially combining older technical procedures (as was the case with the invention and further development of photography). In the wake of these developments and of an administrative revolution and within the framework of laboratory and industrial research (which again required products that could be industrially standardised), entirely new media could be created.

Once, but unfortunately only once, Harold Innis sketched out the systematic order and sectoring of the relationship between industrialisation and media history for Great Britain with maximum clarity. He argues in three consecutive steps:

            (1. primary and secondary sector) (materials: wood, cotton, coal, wheat, meat; transportation: sea, channels, railroad) «The advantages to Great Britain of maritime expansion and of access, with low costs of navigation, to cheap supplies of bulky goods were accompanied by the development of coal mining and industry. Coal began to pull raw materials from the fringes of the Atlantic basin and beyond, and to provide the power for conversion of the raw materials into finished products for export. The effectiveness of the pull began to vary with distances, and distances changed with improvements in manufacturing and particularly in transportation. Timber and cotton from the northern and southern parts of North America could be transported to Great Britain, and penetration to the interior with canals and railways brought steadily expanding trade first in wheat and then in the products of animal husbandry. Successive waves of commodities responded to the lowering of costs of navigation across the Atlantic and of transportation to the interior.»23

            (2. secondary and tertiary sector) (materials: coal, steel, paper; media: letters, newspaper, telegraphy, marketing) «The emergence of a complex industrial and trading structure centring about the coal areas of the Anglo-Saxon world assumed not only improvements in transportation but also in communication. Correspondence between individuals and firms with slow navigation ... was inadequate to meet the demands of large-scale industry and large-scale consumption. The rapid and extensive dissemination of information was essential to the effective placing of labour, capital, raw materials, and finished products. Oscar Wilde wrote that ‹private information is practically the source of every large fortune,› and the demand for private information hastened the development of communications. The application of steam power to the production of paper, and, in turn, of the newspaper, followed by the telegraph, and the exploitation of human curiosity and its interest in news by advertisers anxious to dispose of their products created efficient channels for the spread of information.»24

            (3. tertiary sector and public media) (institutions: state, postal service, school education; media: newspaper, railroad, telegraphy; marketing, the press, media industry) «The state, acting through subsidies, the post office, libraries, and compulsory education, widened the areas to which information could be disseminated. Democratic forms of government provided news and subsidies for the transmission of news.»25 – «The railroad and the telegraph steadily increased the efficiency of advertising media ... which created a national market. In a country of vast extent, the dailies expanded in relation to metropolitan markets and flourished by sensational appeals to larger numbers. ... The newspaper, with the technological advantages evident in the telegraph, the press associations, the manufacture of paper from wood, the rotary press, and the linotype, became independent of party support and became concerned with an increase in circulation and with all the devices calculated to bring about such an increase to meet the demands of advertising.»26

This presentation27 is as enlightening today as it was then. However, Innis' sequence misses a key factor of media innovation in the 19th century – for a number of reasons one may refer to it as ‹Bartleby›. If one only focusses on the accumulative history of inventions, this factor of media technology will remain invisible, i.e. the fact that, for many years, a rapidly expanding industrial production had to be managed with manual means and ancient media skills, namely writing by hand. No story of progress here, between the pyramids and the administration of trading in the 19th century, on the contrary: Scribes and their traditional menial tasks all over the place. By jumping straight into the world of American production and circulation of goods in 1850, you will encounter Bartleby's colleagues:

The «invisible hand of trade was exposed in all its prosaic detail when a young New York City entry clerk named Edward Tailer was sent on a January morning in 1850 to the Customs House to release merchandise. He encountered a phalanx of clerks collectively charged with moving all the sundry cargoes in and out of the harbor, that is, preparing them for general circulation in the American market. This required the assignment of standard money values and the determination of tariff categories, which would then make it possible to assess and pay duties, either in cash or in bonds posted as security. Permits, clearances, certificates, and debentures were also processed, countersigned, and certified at the Customs House. Inventories were measured and inspected, and then checked against manifests and permits, and occasionally reexamined if doubts arose regarding the accuracy of the initial inspection.»28

In this extensive, yet still quite summary description of the intricacies of day-to-day writing activities we see the explosion of office-work in North America in action. It is from here that, decades later, the modern media explosion of reproductive techniques would emerge. Consulting the statistics of the 19th century, one can see that the lower class of employees, who were mainly occupied with manual copying and the matching-up of official certificates, records, and seals, continuously grew in numbers. In tandem with the expansion of the traffic of goods, the volume of media related work also increased and soon became a cost factor which, time and again, threatened to suffocate production. On the other hand, it was only through an efficient administration based on manual writing that bottlenecks in production or missed opportunities in delivering to the sales markets could be avoided – the Scylla and Charybdis of production. The scope of manual copying, of excellent hand-writing, constant copy-editing and proofreading of documents, files, receipts, records continued to grow, while the higher management hierarchies of those lower-level activities were being organized more and more efficiently, and the marketing of products had already been perfected via print and mail.

Over more than 50 years, anyone who either took part in or simply observed the expansion of industrial production and circulation could bear witness to the fact that any patentable invention that would be beneficial to the improvement or the abolition of manual reproductive activities held the potential of fortune and fame for the inventor. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that after the invention of the typewriter, a plethora of other office media, storage media, or reproductive media are being invented at the end of the 19th century.29 It would have been a surprise, in fact, if the sheer demand for the reproduction work of shop-floor media had not caused the creation of any new media. The gramophone and the typewriter, the mimeograph and punch cards did not fall from the heavens of technical invention. Instead they were sweated out by the demand from the treadmill purgatories of manual reproduction and calculation.

Given that the 19th century, with its dynamics in all areas of life, was such a turbulent period, the learning curve in media technology actually seems to have taken quite long. For an extended period, the revolutions in technologies of production and in politics, but also the religious revolutions (e.g. Spiritualism) precede the media revolution of the late 19th century.30 In the core area of science and technology, it is evident that telegraphy develops in steady symbiosis with the expansion of research into electromagnetism and with the expansion of the British Empire, and was understood as a paradigm in the transmission of signals (e.g. by Helmholtz). This was obviously a development where Empire and commerce, scientific research and industrial ingenuity were bound to meet. At the same time, the successful inventions in the field of media up to the end of the century were largely created as by-products of scientific research in other fields (e.g. in chrono-photography) and explicit test series for a specific media invention could be run with patchy results and misjudgements (e.g. in facsimile-telegraphy). In short: In contrast to many other innovative areas of business, the field of media innovations continued to be a quite eclectic branch up until the late 19th century, a branch that developed largely on the fringes of other areas of business and technology. It is only in the so-called ‹Second Industrial Revolution› that the status and organisation of media innovation changes fundamentally; this change being quite late, and being only one part of the fundamental industrial transformations brought about in this period.

This statement may be contested both in detail and in general, depending on the definition of media one might wish to employ for the scientific instruments and apparatuses of the 19th century.31 It remains a task for the future to discuss instruments and laboratory equipment not only as resources for the technical development of media but as genuine media of cooperation between scientists and technicians. However, notwithstanding this potential correction, the structuring of phases for the development of media as established by Innis remains the same: first, the industrialisation of primary resources and of production, then the transformations and intensifications in the secondary and tertiary sectors, and – as the third and final step: the invention and commercialisation of media technologies as new office media and as mass media.

New and Old Constellations of Media Theory

What are the consequences for the theory of modern media and of digital media if one takes this infrastructural narrative as a basis? Classical media theory was not conceived to take account of digitally networked media but rather directly docked onto the communication theories of signal transmission and mass media distribution. Moreover, because of this genealogy rooted in communication theory, media theory relied on several fundamental divisions: the division between a world of face-to-face interaction and the dimension of telecommunication, the division between automated processes and human interventions, the acknowledgment of an immaterial «information» that was neither matter nor energy, and the technical and institutional separation into singular media. However, these large-scale divisions were valid since the 19th century only for public media and not for the bureaucratic media, on the workings of which public media themselves depended, and that eventually merged with public media to give rise to the digitally networked media of today.32

In Modernity, public media were created for anonymous reception, via commercial agencies and public-sector agencies for a general audience. Mass media and telecommunications services seemed to be tailor-made for the separation of media exchange from the world of interaction. Bureaucratic media and other media of work, however, were formed by the requirements of work and the spatial entanglement of operational chains at locations of work. In these media, human and automated activities, interaction and telecommunication, physical skill and semiotic traffic are not separated but are systematically interconnected as mutual resources. Digitally networked media emerged from the bureaucratic media of the past and their fusion with other media of work and finally adopted earlier mass media. Thus, they inherit the totality of the infrastructural weight of the bureaucratic media which were standardised along the administrative interoperability of the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors. This common denominator developed particularly from the administration of administrative work itself, from the attempts to improve or to standardise the self-administration of the administrators («auditing» being part of this development). Thus, the infrastructural weight carried by digital media of administration does not stem from specific infrastructures but rather from their interoperability.

Meanwhile, this interoperability has turned out to be the core of digitally networked media's potential to adapt to all kinds of professional, business-related, or organisational tasks. Their further digital development does not result in dematerialisation. Very much to the contrary, it enables a much more comprehensive, geo-referential supervision and surveillance of material objects, contractual procedures, and persons. Furthermore, this process has so far been going hand in hand with a continuous expansion of the production and global consumption of consumer goods and industrial products. Hence, there are good reasons to doubt whether the historical layering of the three sectors has changed at all, particularly in view of the increase of their digital and networked nature. At least from the perspective of environmental history (i.e. the primary sector), or of the production of goods (the secondary sector), and from the perspective of a history of administrative procedures (the tertiary sector), there seems to be little evidence for any fundamental change. The industrialisation of the world is still expanding, and so is the quest for administrative efficiency and the standardisation of written languages, not to mention the new possibilities of domestication.

This may be the right time for a short historiographical comment. One may wonder why the results of the research of V. Gordon Childe and Harold Innis, stemming from 1936 and 1946 respectively, have not yet been generalised for the area of media theory. Why has there been no debate in media theory about the primacy or non-primacy of media? The answer lies in the mutual logjams of the post-war era. Marxist media theorists treated media and mass media as part of the superstructure of society: as culture industry, as a commercial market with the consumers turned into a commodity, as spectacle, or as part of a struggle for cultural hegemony. For anti-Marxist media theoreticians or those who had turned away from Marxism, media were not part of but the opposite of material production: as agencies of material destruction and as agencies of simulation, or as the semiotic infrastructures of mankind. During the Cold War, the options of classical media theory made it nearly impossible to relate the history of media inventions to the development of the modern division of labour. The role of bureaucratic media for industrial production and its relationship with the modern development of mass media remained a «terra incognita» for both camps. Only specific strands of economic history and especially of North American and European business history (on which Innis' analysis is also based) were able to offer a coherent and convincing argument for a systematic relationship between infrastructures and media infrastructures, between the bureaucratic organisation of labour and public media services. But even now, this historical narrative has only been perfected for North America and, specifically, for the U.S.A.33

Therefore, this binocular perspective can be viewed as a long overdue chance to complete the scope of positions in media theory, a chance to terminate the mutual blockade of Marxist superstructure and anti-Marxist infrastructure (and vice versa), a blockade that, by now, has become obsolete, and to begin thinking outside the box of classical media theory – until its asymmetries can be transformed into symmetries.34 This striving for symmetries should not be understood as a way to dispute the relevance or the impact of media revolutions. The development of written languages, the history of mail and printing, and the history of modern media inventions gave each rise to thresholds beyond which media emancipated themselves from the specialised functionality of their administrative and technical tasks and took on lives of their own as biographical all-purpose media:

            1. Writing turned into written languages for an elite;

            2. Writing was turned into print languages and vernaculars for all those who could (or had to) read and write;

            3. and as newspaper, cinema, radio, telephone, gramophone, or Personal Computer, specialised media technologies became media for everyone in all strands of life.

Classical media theory's conceptions of a primary media impact do hold true for these transformations into all-purpose media and their specific media-in-becoming, namely in two ways. On the one hand, the seemingly invariant nature of linguistic interaction does not remain invariant but is partially aligned with the interoperability of the media. Linguistic standardisations and standardisations of media techniques go hand in hand. This can be demonstrated f.i., for orthography: The standardisation of orthography in the Modern Age was

           1. only possible because of the industrialised steam press; it continues to be

           2. a primary economic cost factor, i.e. the lack of orthographical standardisations would incur significant additional costs (and legal conflicts); and is, thus,

           3. enabled to a degree (in relation to the amount of educational training and to the work of correcting and proof-reading) that could not have been financed in other societies.

In the Modern Age, the most important consequences of this development are a hitherto unprecedented degree of standardisation of written languages as well as a dying out of languages on a global scale. This language death is partially intertwined with an expansion of the documentation of languages and resulting opportunities for political revitalisation. Thus, the linguistic development of globalisation shows the incremental unity of the three media revolutions, the combination of which, however, did not occur in a linear fashion: the invention of written languages, of print languages and their vernaculars, and of orthographically standardised media languages (e.g. standard pronunciation for actors).

On the other hand: As soon as media inventions have become relevant for all biographical forms of liminality and for all rites of passage within a larger social group, they do become prime movers, initiating new forms of sociality, of perception, and of more media practices. Indeed, then, media practices create their own biographical worlds as well as worldviews. In this respect, they remain akin to the media practices of non-literate and non-industrialised societies. There is, however, a difference here, which I would like to spell out by adopting Marshall McLuhan's classical formula:35

In the longue durée of the history of mankind, our media have always aligned themselves along the parameters and the material basis of our societies. And it is especially the expectations and parameters that are projected from the general patterns of our material and organisational activities onto the structures of our media. The same structuring of different media via the forms of human and non-human sociality can also be found in the non-Western world, just like we find them in the lives of the industrialised and literate mankind with its specialised abilities of perception, e.g. in the training of a particular professional vision.

The difference lies in the fact that our media technologies, from writing to printing and from Gutenberg to Marconi, from the Sumerian tokens to the Internet, have all been strongly influenced by the organisation and particularly by the interoperability of the primary and secondary sectors and by those media of the tertiary sector that organise this interoperability. It may simply be that the kind of all-pervasive media autonomy that we have conceived for the development of modern media could only exist in non-literate societies and their cognates, and nowhere else.


Translated from German by Mark Schreiber

  • 1On the history of the political regulation of North American media, see the summary by: Paul Starr: The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, New York 2004.
  • 2Marshall McLuhan: Report on Project on Understanding New Media, Washington 1960, 1. The argument at hand was first introduced in Toronto during the conference The Toronto School: Then Now Next in October 2016. I would like to thank Cora Bender, Michael Darroch and Anthony Enns, as well as Gabriele Schabacher and Karin Harrasser for relevant discussions in Weimar and Linz.
  • 3Edmund Carpenter, Marshall McLuhan: «Acoustic Space», in: Edmund Carpenter, Marshall McLuhan (eds.): Exporations in Communication: An Anthology, Boston 1960, 65–70.
  • 4The classification into economic sectors was derived from the field of employment statistics. Despite its success since the 1930s it has only caused minor debates about its theoretical substance. Moreover, this classification has faced justified criticism regarding its normative usage in the area of economic politics during the post-war time (especially by the French economist Jean Fourastié). My text does not use the classification into sectors with a normative impetus but rather because it has proven useful in archeology and economic history. The classification provides a means for typological categorizations and a comparative framework that is not suitable for detailed ethnographic analyses or for close-up investigations.
  • 5Stephen D. Houston (ed.): The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, Cambridge 2004, Haicheng Wang: Writing and the Ancient State: Early China in Comparative Perspective, Cambridge 2014.
  • 6Vere Gordon Childe: Man Makes Himself, London 1936, chapter V: «The Neolithic Revolution».
  • 7Vere Gordon Childe: «The Urban Revolution», in: The Town Planning Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1950, 3–17.
  • 8Childe: «Urban Revolution». Cf. the update by Haicheng Wang: Writing and the Ancient State.
  • 9Cf. Nicholas Ostler: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, London 2005.
  • 10Crucial, but so far unresolved test cases for a specification of the socio-historical conditions for the emergence writing are the Inca and their knotted string records, as well as the Indian Harappa civilization: highly organized urban civilizations with opaque or missing written languages.
  • 11Cf. Michael Harbsmeier: «Inventions of Writing», in: John Gledhill, Barbara Bender and Mogens Trolle Larsen (eds.): State and Society: The Emergence and Development of Social Hierarchy and Political Centralization, London 1988, 253–276.
  • 12 When trade networks and empires broke down, there was less to organize by written language, the wielders of power became illiterate, and the custodians of holy scriptures had to take care of what was left of literacy, with the result that the original written languages of their own sacred writings were ignored, because it was easier to deal with them in the language they knew best. On the other hand, the rise of cities and trade networks, i.e. a growth of the secondary and tertiary sector, led to a renewal of literacy that challenged the literary monopoly of religious organisations and gave rise to new administrative demands.
  • 13 On Chinese letter press printing, cf. Stefan Kramer: «Globale Medienangebote und lokale Programme – Der Fall des chinesischen Buchdrucks», in: Joachim Paech (ed.): Programm(e), Berlin and Zurich 2015, 65–92.
  • 14 Cf. Adrian Johns: «The Coming of Print to Europe», in: L. Howsam (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, Cambridge 2015, 107–124.
  • 15 Cf. Wolfgang Behringer: Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der Frühen Neuzeit, Göttingen 2003. Behringer differentiates between «Medienrevolution» (‹media revolution›, printing press) and «Kommunikationsrevolution» (‹communication revolution›, postal service); cf. Wolfgang Behringer: «‹Die Welt in einen anderen Model gegossen›. Das frühmoderne Postwesen als Motor der Kommunikationsrevolution», in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, Vol. 53, 2002, 424–433.
  • 16Cf. Michael Mitterauer: Warum Europa? Mittelalterliche Grundlagen eines Sonderwegs, München 2003, on the three-year crop rotation as an agricultural revolution («Agrarian Revolution», chapter 1), but also on the perspective on the printing press from mediaeval forms of mass communication («Mass Communication», especially the sermon, chapter 7).
  • 17My presentation largely follows Karl-Georg Zinn: Kanonen und Pest: Über die Ursprünge der Neuzeit im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert, Opladen 1989. A vivid representation of the mobility and restlessness of European townspeople after the plague years is provided by Lucien Febvre: Leben in der französischen Renaissance, Berlin 2000.
  • 18Cf. on the urban and bureaucratic conditions of late mediaeval demand for copies: Michael T. Clanchy: «Looking Back from the Invention of Printing», in: Daniel P. Resnick (ed.): Literacy in Historical Perspective, Washington 1983, 7–22.
  • 19Cf. Fernand Braudel on the speed of news transmission to Venice («The speed at which news reached Venice»), in: The Structures of Everyday Life, New York 1981, 426f. and the comprehensive presentation of the longue durée of the maximum speed of letters and news in his book on the Mediterranean: Das Mittelmeer und die mediterrane Welt in der Epoche Philipps II., Band 2, Frankfurt/M. 1990, 27–40.
  • 20Cf. Adrian Johns: The Nature of the Book, Chicago 1998; Michael T. Clanchy: «Looking Back from the Invention of Printing», in: Daniel P. Resnick (ed.): Literacy in Historical Perspective, Washington 1983, 7–22. The breakthrough of a media change seems to be bound not only to the recognition of a potential semiotic gain but also to the acceptance of a semiotic and professional loss of quality (e.g. of an already existing graphic, linguistic, musical, or auditory quality).
  • 21Cf. Alfred R. Chandler: The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Cambridge/Mass. 1977; James R. Beniger: The Control Revolution, Cambridge/Mass. 1986. A more precise presentation with regard to media history is: JoAnn Yates: Control through Communication, Baltimore 1989, rev. ed. 1993.
  • 22 Elizabeth Eisenstein: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, New York 1979. Since the controversy between Eisenstein and Adrian Johns («How to Acknowledge a Revolution», in: American Historical Review, No. 107, 2002, 106–125), the impact of classical media theory on the history of the printing press has steadily declined, especially because of more thorough research into the transitions between practices of print, manual writing, orality, and non-print publication in the early modern age. A new synthesis of print history has yet to be presented; but it has already been achieved by Andrew Pettegree for the realm of public information and (print and non-print) news services between 1450 and 1800: The Invention of News. How the world came to know about itself, New Haven 2014.
  • 23 Harold Innis: «On the Economic Significance of Cultural Factors», in: Harold Innis.: Staples, Markets, and Cultural Change: Selected Essays, Montreal 1995, 297–315, here: 302. (First publication: Harold Innis: Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946.)
  • 24Innis, 302f.
  • 25 Innis, 303.
  • 26 Innis, 306.
  • 27Concerning the source of his schematic sequence, Innis refers to N.S.B. Gras «The Development of Metropolitan Economy in Europe and America», in: American Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1922, 695–708. Gras' sequence of phases is one of the precursors for the later division into economic sectors. Business history and employment statistics are, once again, the focus of this historiography.
  • 28Michael Zakim: «Producing Capitalism: The Clerk at Work», in: Gary Kornblith, Michael Zakim (eds.): Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America, Chicago 2012, 223–247, here: 224f.
  • 29Cf. summary: JoAnn Yates: «Investing in Information: Supply and Demand Forces in the Use of Information in American Firms, 1850–1920», in: Peter Temin (ed.): Inside the Business Enterprise: Historical Perspectives on the Use of Information, Chicago 1991, 117–160.
  • 30 After careful consideration of the relevant sources, the evidence for the creation of Spiritualism from media technology (e.g. from telegraphy) seems to me quite weak. Rather, it seems that Spiritualism in the 19th century continued to employ the most recent media, metaphorically as well as in practice, in keeping with its being a driving force of modernist cosmologies.
  • 31During the 19th century, science quickly became so dependent on its continuously renewing technical equipment that the scientific project of a «technology», an encyclopaedic or axiomatic «science of techniques», (which had been envisaged since 1650) had to be abandoned already around 1850. Thus, the scientific conceptualisation of its own technology (and media technology) remained a blind spot of scientific self-understanding and the philosophy of science. Cf. Guillaume Carnino: «Les transformations de la technologie: du discours sur les techniques à la ‹techno-science›», in: Romantisme, Vol. 4, No. 150, 2010, 75–84; Guillaume Carnino: L'invention de la science, Paris 2015.
  • 32A more comprehensive discussion can be found in my text: «Infrastructural and Public Media», in: Media in Action, issue 0 (pre-release) 2016, 1–21, online: http://dokumentix.ub.uni-siegen.de/opus/volltexte/2016/998/ (last seen 16/06/2017).
  • 33 A summary of this tradition of research can be found in: Paul Starr: The Creation of the Media (Fn. 1); including an extensive bibliography. Cf. Richard R. John: Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications, Cambridge/Mass. 2010; Alfred Chandler, James W. Cortada (eds.): A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present, New York 2000.
  • 34Following Bruno Latour's concept of «symmetrical anthropology» (Bruno Latour: Wir sind nie modern gewesen, Frankfurt/M. 1998).
  • 35 Following and not following Marshall McLuhan (cf. Fn. 2).

Bevorzugte Zitationsweise

Schüttpelz, Erhard: Media Revolutions and other Revolutions. In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Web-Extra, 11. November 2017, https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/online/media-revolutions-and-other-revolutions.

Die Open-Access-Veröffentlichung erfolgt unter der Creative Commons-Lizenz CC BY-SA 4.0 DE.