Steven G. Percifield--author

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Steven G. Percifield  Author and consultant
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On the democratizing effects
of paradigm changes in
commercial communication

Somewhere back in ancient history--1963 or so, I believe--a wise Canadian educator/philosopher/futurist/scholar/critic/guru named Marshall McLuhan, well know for his quotable observations, dropped a real pearl explaining why the commercial television networks were filled with garbage programming: "The medium is the message" (my Italics).

As I understood it, he was saying that it really didn't matter what was broadcast; Since viewers were so enamored with the concept of images broadcast over thin air appearing in their homes, they would watch whatever crap was on "the tube." Gilligan's Island was actually a study conducted by University of Chicago sociologists to confirm or disprove McLuhan's theory. It was proven beyond a doubt.

Of even more importance, however, is the fact that unless it appeared to have commercial potential, Gilligan's Island wouldn't have ever appeared in the first place. And unless it delivered commercial value, it would not have remained in production for nearly 100 episodes and on the air (in syndication) for nearly half a century. While the medium was the message, it was a damned expensive medium making the message likewise. The obtaining of commercial sponsorship was the prerequisite to the production and broadcast of almost everything.

Since the advent of mass communications, this has pretty much been the way it has worked.  

Gutenberg's printing press with movable type, dating back to the early-mid 1400s, permitted virtually anything that could be printed to be mass-produced and massively disseminated. As the masses, however, were largely illiterate at the time, the democratizing influence of open and massive communication--although a great leap forward--was somewhat impeded. The writings of authors of the time--the clergy, the ruling class and landed gentry--could only be read by the readers of the time--the clergy, the ruling class and the landed gentry. Due in no small part to the efforts of the church (which felt a moral imperative for its message to be spread) literacy was shared--slowly at first then like a cleansing wave, rolling over the formerly unwashed masses.

By the time of the American Revolution, America was the most literate society on the face of the earth which was one of the driving forces behind that revolution; It simply could not have happened without the fervor created by the printed word, mass produced by the pamphleteers, then delivered throughout the original 13 colonies and beyond. It is no wonder that the resulting government, from its beginnings, promoted additional literacy through its mandates in favor of public education.

Commercialism was a cornerstone of this increasingly literate society. As literacy increased, so did the commercial potential for publishing and selling the thoughts of others. From the time of Gutenberg on, publishing and the ranks of the literate shared a symbiotic relationship, growing together for four and one-half centuries as cornerstones for the sharing of both democracy and culture.

Radio and its bastard child television emerged about 450 and 500 years, respectively, after the movable-type press. Still dependant upon the written word, they offered an entirely new medium for its dissemination--broadcasts. Ultimately, nearly everyone in the developed world had the potential of receiving these broadcast messages should they choose to do so. Expansive as it was, the democratizing effect of the broadcast medium was inhibited though--even in America, the cradle of modern democracy--by a two very significant factors: government control and costs.

Early on, governments claimed the airwaves and control over them as THEIR domains, limiting the opportunities for access to them. Those who gained access could only do so by meeting the standards established by the government. The meeting of government standards, the costs of doing so and the costs of mass audience broadcasting worked together to produce what was aptly described as the vast wasteland of television programming. The only content available had to have the broad appeal which could only be obtained by targeting the lowest common denominators of the mass audience.

Whatever democratizing effects these mass communication networks might have offered were reduced or eliminated by government control or costs which rendered most of the people to be receivers of information rather than dispersers.

The internet appeared less than a century after the advent of commercial broadcasting. Originally developed as a decentralized communications network for the military and universities--impervious to an attack on a central broadcasting hub--it  rapidly evolved into a world wide web. At first only accessible by traditional computers, the world wide web rapidly evolved into a medium accessible by instruments as innocuous as hand-held smart phones.

The democratizing effects of the world wide web and its cheap ease of access are seemingly infinite. Almost everyone in the developed world and many in less developed countries can gain the ability to not only receive uncensored messages from around the world, but also to create and disseminate their own messages to anyone who chooses to read, watch or listen to them. The "Arab Spring," as it has cheaply been called, was probably as dependent upon internet communications as the American Revolution was upon printed pamphlets.

I took eons for mankind to develop written language. Maybe half again as long for it to develop the movable-type press for the rapid production of printed materials providing for mass communication. Less than half a millennium to develop electronic broadcasting. Less than half a century to develop the internet. About ten years to develop hand-held devices to access it.

The democratizing effect of uncensored mass communications is directly related to the amount of them. Each of the above paradigm shifts in mass communications provided a meteoric increase in the growth of democracy.

But there is one other aspect of the internet that bodes well for the world to come. The hate and mistrust of others, fanned by governments seeking to gain or justify their tyrannies, becomes far more difficult when individuals relate to their supposed enemies through the sharing of their individual thoughts and cultures.

Maybe I'm viewing the future through rose colored glasses but what I see is a more democratic world, a freer world and one less-prone to war; all as a result of the increased communications afforded by the internet.