I've been putting together a historical dataset on communications technology, and have come up with a few ideas about the theory behind it. What follows is the model I've set up to help guide this research.
Before we can test to see how ‘revolutionary’ the current state of media technology is we first require a stylized model of communication. This will make it possible to systematically compare technological capabilities over time. Communication is a process of transmitting information from one actor to another.1 Regardless of the form this transmission takes, it undergoes a series of distinct stages. First, a creator assembles the data he desires to be shared with an intended audience. This collection of recorded information can be termed the message. The form or mediumthis transmission takes can vary greatly.2 Couriers can be used to transmit oral or written messages to literate recipients, radios can be used to broadcast information to those equipped with wireless receivers, and Twitter can be used to text 140 characters to those connected by cellular telephone or wireless internet service.3 Often overlooked is that as the form varies, so too will its manner of dissemination. By this we mean how the particular medium conveys information to an audience. In this there are two possibilities, point-to-point dissemination and broadcast. A couriered message, for example, is communication between two single entities: the creator and the intended recipient (or whoever may have intercepted the message along its path, as the case may be). A broadcast is an act of communication that cannot be easily restricted to a single recipient. A signal fire, for example, transmits information to anyone within its line of sight—even if they are unaware of the code explaining its significance. A radio wave reaches everyone in range and in possession of an appropriate receiver. The forms of dissemination can be further typologized by separating mechanical from electronic means. The optical telegraph, for example, is an exemplar of mechanical point-to-point communication, while the telegraph and SMS messaging are electronic equivalents. The age-old town crier is an example of a mechanical broadcast, while satellite television would be an electronic form. Another critical aspect of dissemination is the degree to which the medium is interactive. Is it possible for the recipient to alter and retransmit the message? Is a message that can be manipulated by both beginning and end users? For a couriered note this poses little difficulty. For a radio broadcast, however, very little interactivity is observed—and none without specialized equipment. Highly interactive media are what are known as social media.4 It is upon reception of the message (either through sight or sound) that we see the political effect of communication. This is when the combination knowledge accumulation (the information provided by the transmitted message) and emotion (the visceral response to this information) inspire political action—or lack thereof, as the case may be. It is assumed that as the shape and form of communication varies, so too will the political effect.
My work is most concerned with how the capabilities of media technology have changed over time. To judge this evolution we need to systematically consider the capacity of a medium and the ease with which it can deliver a message from its creator to its recipient. There are seven aspects to this question. The first is the distance or range (or breadth) a single message can travel. An email travels much further afield than a whisper, for example. Second is the speed at which information is transmitted. Messages sent on sailing ships during the late 1700s would take a month to cross the Atlantic and three months to cross the Pacific.5 In contrast, a courier today can fly from England to Australia in less than a day.6 Data capacity is the amount of information that can be contained within a message. This concept is somewhat more complicated, as it speaks to both a medium’s total volume of information storage7 as well as how much data can be transmitted per unit of time. The difference between the two becomes apparent during the electronic age. Whereas both the recorded and the transmitted volume of information delivered by a courier was limited only by the weight of parchment he could carry, a CD ROM or flash memory drive will contain vastly more information than can be immediately transmitted. A useful analogy is a dam reservoir: the volume stored behind the concrete and earthen embankment is far greater than the flow that transits down the spillway. Even at the fastest internet speeds (100 Mpbs), it still takes 5:20 to download a DVD/high quality movie or about 4 GB of data.8 Audience size is the number of people who can understand or are capable of processing (or ‘decoding’) the information. A message may be ubiquitous yet still completely useless if the requisite skills or technology to understand it are lacking. Related to this is the scope of a communications technology, or the number of actors in a society that are able to participate in the process of delivering a message. Scope is a function of either the complexity or the capital cost involved in a technology. Crystal radio sets, for example, placed the power of voice and later text communication in the hands of private amateurs. The sophistication of the equipment, however, prevented widescale adoption, and thus this audience size remained relatively small. On the other hand, the great expense involved with television broadcasting limit messaging to interests with large capital. Sixth is the mobility of the communications device. Under how many settings can the technology be used? Is it limited to a fixed or ‘hardwired’ terminal, or rather a ‘cordless’ device that accompanies a user whoever she goes? Last iscost, something best measured—in the interest of cross-epochal comparison—in real terms. An additional element, less related to capacity and ease and more to the forms of data dissemination, is the interactivity or malleability of the message. How easy is it to manipulate the message? The greater extent to which this is made possible, the more an audience will feel themselves to be participants in the process of communication: the audience will develop its own voice.
1 The word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin word communico, 'to share'. It is the social process of information exchange.
2 An exhaustive list includes town crier, Lutheran posting, foot courier, horse-drawn messenger, rider, rail, optical signals, optical telegraph, electric telegraph, radio, television, cable, broadband/fibre optic, cellular, and satellite.
3 Note the gradual merging of these two networks. In Africa, for example, the biggest growth sector is in internet-enabled mobile applications.
4 Many studies have addressed the potential of technologies described as ‘social media’, ‘social networking’, or ‘Web 2.0’. See, for example, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Participative Web and User-Created Content: Web 2.0, Wikis, and Social Networking, (Paris: OECD, 2007). Yet when discussing either the revolutionary potential or excessive exuberance tied to these technologies, most fail to properly the nature of these technologies and how they fit in the wider sweep of history.
5 Stokes Brown ('08), p207.
6 In 1928 Bert Hinkler made the solo journey between England and Australia in 16 days. Christakis and Fowler, Connected, p264
7 Also important is the permanence of information storage.
8 ICT, “The World in 2010.”