Paradigm shifts in mass communication: Nothing new.

We're all dealing with the changing paradigm of mass communication forced on us by economic forces and the potential of the Internet.  No one has an answer to the question:  "What the heck to we do now."  Correction: Lots of people have answers, but none of them actually work yet.

What gives me comfort is my knowledge of history.  I sit back and see what is going on and know that we have gone through it before.  To prove it, I'm going to take us on a walk over the next few weeks on the history of mass communication.  Let's look at ...

Cave Drawings

This might be the first form of mass media that we know.  It predates effective language and was used to record what small communities considered to be historic events and preserve some sense of progress among primitive man.  During this time, individual artists rose up within family groups, not unlike leaders that Seth Godin speaks of, who developed their skills for the benefit of the family group or tribe.  Those skills were passed down from parent to offspring for decades until the advent of ...

The Spoken Word

Think about it.  Cave drawing was an established paradigm until language developed enough to pass on complete thoughts with tense and gender.  The historic context was maintained by those with adequate oral skills and memory to expand on what the cave drawings meant.  Eventually, cave drawing became an anachronism because the oral tradition was much more vibrant and could be made current.  Historic consideration gave way to what is happening now and what could happen in the future (conjecture and superstition).  Art still had it's place in mass communication, but those with vocal skills now surpassed the visual artist as the foundation of communication.  

The importance of the orator within the tribe was paramount for centuries until it expanded to the wandering minstrel/storyteller.  This was a significant paradigm shift because it expanded the world view of primitive man, linked communities, opened dialog between tribes and started the concept of civilization development. As the storytellers moved from village to village, tribes became city-states and the oral tradition became mass media controlled by those who demonstrated skill at telling stories and remembering (or making up) salient points.  In EuroCeltic culture, those storytellers became more than just communicators but the source of knowledge.  They were known as Druids and were considered the priestly class.  We will come back to them, but while the oral tradition served many cultures for centuries, another communication paradigm was emerging from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East ...

The Written Word

In some oil-lamp lit room, a functionary in Ancient Sumeria about 6,000 years ago was given the task of making an inventory in the royal treasury.  At about the same time, rudimentary hieroglyphics providing an inventory of the Scorpion King were put onto stone  Both are the earliest know examples of the written word.  The latter didn't really catch on (unless you count television and YouTube as the decendants of hieroglyphics) but cuneiform evolved into multiple languages throughout the world.  

Big deal, you say?  Well keep this in mind:  The oral tradition was the established norm for more than 50,000 years before the emergence of the written language.  It took  complete control over the standard of mass communication away from the priestly class and put it into the hands of government functionaries.  We complain about how traditional journalism is dying because of the internet, but you have to realize that traditional journalism as we know it, has only existed for about 60 years.  The paradigm shift caused by the invention of writing is like comparing the Hiroshima bombing with a fire cracker.

Next week, we will look at how control of written language shifted from various power centers over the centuries and how it changed society.