Friday, July 01, 2011

I have posted twice before on Marshal Poe's book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (June 26, June 22). I find that I could only skim most of the book, In five chapters, Poe argues that his model works: that each different medium (speech, writing by hand, mechanical printing, audiovisual, and the Internet) has been developed and disseminated by a given process, that its dissemination induces a network, and that people interact with a network in accord with eight critical attributes, which in turn promote certain social practices which in turn encourage certain cultural values.

In spite of the fact that Poe emphasizes Plato's arguments against rhetoric, these chapters are an exercise in rhetoric. He chooses examples, often drawn from imagination rather than evidence, and often citing a single author rather than reviewing alternative thoughts on the points; the argument is clearly a defense of a his position rather than an analysis of what that position should be.

I suggest that history shows that a medium, in the face of other determinants, can result in very different kinds of cultures with very different values. To illustrate my point, lets look at pairs of cultures in Poe's different media, giving first a democratic and second an authoritarian culture in each ages:

  • The Age of Speech (societies without writing): The Five Nations of the Iroquois and the Inca Empire in 1492
  • The Age of Manuscripts (societies with writing but without mechanical printing) Athens in its Golden Age and the Roman Empire
  • The Age of Print (societies with mechanical printing but without radio, television, movies, etc.): The United States and the Napoleonic Empire in 1805
  • The Age of Audiovisual Media: The United States and the USSR during the Cold War

It seems to me that each pair of cultures listed above has similar media but very different social practices and social attitudes. If so, Poe's model does not work.

I think the dimensions that he adduces for the description of a medium are rather interesting, but I suggest that the networks based on media may develop over long periods of time, with differing values of the attributes as they networks move from their small roots to their greatest magnitude and then (often decay). Of course, there are different media within each of Poe's categories. Thus printed magazines are different than books, which in turn are different than pamphlets, all of which are different than newspapers.

The final chapter makes the point, probably correct, that over thousands of years the rate of innovation in human society has increased. It suggests that that rate may however have peaked. I don't know whether Poe knows the ideas of long waves of innovation which might influence the rates in the last couple of centuries.

I don't recommend this book.

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