How has media evolved through time?

A Brief History of Media & Communication

Humans are social beings who want and need to communicate with each other. According to the pioneering research of Dr. Kathryn Barnand, founder of the Center for Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington, even infants try to communicate with their caregivers using non-verbal cues. Like babies, early humans only needed to communicate with people within a small circle so sounds and gestures were enough. Humans eventually learned to speak, although scientists have not yet agreed on a theory on how exactly this happened.

Humans started writing at around 3,200 BCE (Before Common Era) in Mesopotamia and boo BCE in Mesoamerica. It arose from the need to indicate quantity or numbers for recordkeeping. Words for “finger” are found in several ancient languages for numbers which suggest that humans first counted and communicated quantity with their fingers. This then evolved into cutting notches on tree barks or stones to represent numbers. To record other things and concepts, early humans began drawing on caves and animal skin. The earliest form of writing like the Egyptian hieroglyphs are simplified drawings. Pictographic writing systems, like those used by the Chinese, still exist today. 

As human settlements got bigger and bigger, the need to communicate to a greater number of people grew. Horns, drums, fire, and smoke signals were used to send a message quickly and over a vast distance (e.g. “Invaders!”). Messengers were also used to physically disseminate information more precisely. Archaeological accounts corroborate Biblical passages about the Persians using messengers on horses to reach more people over great distances faster. This ancient “pony express” may be the predecessor of the postal service, but like so many ancient forms of spreading information to a large group of people, it required resources that were practically exclusive to the ruling class. 

During the pre-industrial age, information was mostly passed on orally. Important documents like laws and edicts had to be tediously copied by hand and posted in public places, or town criers travel from place to place to read them out loud. The process was difficult, slow, and unreliable. Information also flowed in only one direction, from the ruler who issued the edict to his subjects. The whole process must be repeated in reverse if and when the receiver decides to respond. But when the source of information is an authority, as is usually the case, the strict hierarchy in society discourages—even forbids—any response from the recipients.

It wasn’t until the 17th century, hundreds of years after the invention of printing technology lowered the cost of books and reading materials, that the modern newspaper was invented in Europe. Before that, printed news sheets appeared in the Ming Dynasty Court in Beijing in 1582 and block-printed handbills commemorating events were sold in 17th century Japanese cities. Modern magazines were invented in the 18th century. It took an awfully long time for all these developments in communication to happen.

A Quick History of the Internet

When we entered the period of industrialization then the age of electricity over 200 years ago, the pace of communication greatly improved. Various innovations came about, revolutionizing the way people communicated. Some of them were film (189os), radio (1895), and television (1927).

The idea for the Internet began with the invention of computers in the 1960s. Scientists were looking for ways to link computers in the US and Europe so information can be quickly shared for defense and scientific purposes. In the 198os, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conducted a research at CERN (Switzerland) which later resulted in the invention of the World Wide Web. And since the mid-199os, the Internet has become a fixture of any modern society. In the summer of 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a non-binding document condemning the intentional disruption of Internet access by governments. This followed the 2011 report by Frank LaRue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, that Internet access is a fundamental human right.

The Internet has increased the power and reach of mass media. We have now entered the Information Age. Information is abundant and is spread instantaneously and inexpensively throughout the world. Its growth hasn’t stopped—in fact, it is exponentially growing and changing, quickening the ways we communicate, bringing new challenges to how media shapes society. 

From Traditional Media to New Media

The historical perspective cautions us from labeling something “traditional” and another “new,” especially now that exponential growth in computing power can easily make a new technology suddenly obsolete. For example, the reliable post mail suddenly got called “snail mail” when emails and instant messaging apps took over as our primary means of sending messages over long distances. The “one-hour photo developing” of pictures in the late 9os was considered fast before smartphones and Instagram were born. It is not an exaggeration to say that most of what we consider cutting-edge communication technology or “new media” will soon be outmoded. But for purposes of analyzing the changing forms of media and how it impacts us, we shall use the terms traditional media and new media. 

In distinguishing between traditional and new media, we can initially compare the technology that they use to spread information. New media is digital and Internet media is a big part of this (websites, blogs, wikis, online newspapers, and social media). It also includes information delivered through digital devices like video games, augmented reality, virtual reality, DVDs, and CD-ROMs. Traditional media are those that transmit information without the use of the Internet or any digital platform (i.e. analog technology like airwaves). Traditional media are what used to be collectively known as mass media for their ability to simultaneously disseminate information to a very large group of people (TV, radio, film, and print media). 

By definition, new media can also be considered as a form of mass media. At the same time, traditional media companies have since adopted digital technology to spread content. Is there any difference, then, between traditional media and new media when their contents converge? What is the difference between reading an article from a newspaper and reading the exact same story from that newspaper’s website? Think about the differences in your experience when watching your favorite program on TV and when accessing it through a computer.

The most essential difference is that new media are on-demand and interactive. For centuries, the greatest innovations in communication focused on improving how quickly a message can be sent, how far it can be sent, the number of people it can be sent to, and how accurate the message can be conveyed. Traditional media seem to have adequately solved those problems and yet the technology simply did not allow for a true multi-directional flow of information. Always, the information goes from the sender to the receiver. Sure, traditional media have incorporated some means of feedback to create a semblance of a conversation, but it is new media that truly allows for conversation.

Traditional media also control when information can be accessed with their program grids and schedules. Twenty-four-hour news channels and daily newspapers never really felt very limiting until new .media allowed people to access information when they want, where they want. And when new media—specifically social media—allowed us to instantly react, comment, and share with the click of a button on devices we can bring practically anywhere, we have transformed from mere consumers or receivers of information to producers of information. Information no longer just flows in one direction; it is now like a web that goes to multiple directions, and we, too, can send out information to our own friends/ followers on social media. Before, we were just studying media and how they affect us. Now, there is an added layer that pushes us to examine ourselves in order to become responsible deliverers of information.

Because of the on-demand and interactive qualities of new media, some suggest that the more apt term for new media is “open media.” This openness makes the exchange of information extremely fast. But does speed come at the expense of accuracy? Consider the proliferation of fake news—from the occasional celebrity death hoax to the inability of major Philippine broadsheets to change their headlines when Mary Jane Veloso received a last-minute stay on her execution, or that fake news were allegedly produced to influence the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Large news organizations are especially threatened by the ability of just about anyone to tweet a video or a photo of a newsworthy event even before they can report it. There is also the essential question of the value of truthful and insightful journalism in this age where information travels so quickly. Another issue is regulation. Unlike traditional media companies which operate within clear geo-political borders, the Internet is a worldwide web. Regulators grapple with how and who should regulate its various activities, while some argue that with its global reach, it is far better and safer that it remains outside the control of government. 

In democratic societies where freedom of speech and of the press are valued and protected, traditional media function within the concept of self-regulation rather than direct government control. Now that we’ve learned that new media has transformed us into media content producers, how do you think we can apply the principle of self-regulation in new media?