Media and literacy
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London

Communication has been the most dominant means of influencing and shaping a society. Approximately in and around 720 BC the Greek alphabet reflected on the Greeks to mull over and acquire astuteness. Writing allows the author of a story to register what he writes in a reader’s mind exactly he intends it to be. Thus, communication media have influenced human existence from time immemorial. Today, at much a faster rate than newspapers, magazine or even the television, the Internet has become a powerful communication process which is fundamentally altering the culture and society the world over.

Communication falls into two backgrounds (a) Oral and (b) Writing. In oral culture community becomes the uncomplicated part of social existence, thus a particular community is defined by its fragmentary performance of social life. On the contrary, writing emerges as a unique component developing specific codes or laws.

Print Culture
With the invention of the printing press and movable type, the concept of writing revolutionized and became popular. In the middle ages this helped and guaranteed the elite and religious personalities to get their written manuscripts literally identical to the printed version.

As a consequence writing became not just a case of parting with ideas but a definite process questionable theoretically. Furthermore, it allowed backward scanning; one could revise a text, go back and eliminate errors and inconsistencies. The other advantage was that one was able to look over a text and change written words to ensure the intended meaning as opposed to the spoken word where even the wild horses could not draw back once uttered. Therefore with writing came a mind-set that liked accuracy and precision. This very obsession with meticulousness and correctness gave rise to dictionaries embodying the desire to legislate the correct use of language.

In the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, for example, the ‘working classes’ in European society were taught to read so that they could understand the Bible as well as manuals for the new industrial machinery, but it was difficult to control what a literate audience consumed. Workers often read political tracts and newspapers, which contributed to the growing political gap between the classes of workers and capitalists of the Industrial Revolution. This helped create new political forms of organisation and power, such as political parties and democratic governments.

The impact of printing technology seemingly altered the very structure of human consciousness, the ability to think and reason and build up a physical relationship between the reader’s eyes and the text to define a linear mode of thinking. Just as eyes move across the page, line after line, in a rigorous and fixed way, one began to think in similarly rigorously linear fashion - one idea logically connected to the next. It is in the age of printing that European powers explored and colonised the world, spreading their culture, their politics, and their religions across the globe.

Electronic Culture
When we think about electronic media, we are likely to think about radio, television, movies, and computers. But to understand these developments, we need to go back to the emergence of the Telegraph in the nineteenth century. The Telegraph had at least two important consequences: It reorganised people’s perception of space and time, and it allowed for new kinds of organisational control. The Telegraph enabled the almost instantaneous transmission of messages across space, and it fostered a rational organisation of time. The need to coordinate the measurement of time around the globe gave rise to the establishment of standard time zones and the fixing of Greenwich Mean Time as the norm defining the correct time at any place in the world.

If printing enabled the transmission of messages across time, their ability to cross-space was still severely limited. Although a ruler could now send a message to the far reaches of his or her empire and be certain of the accuracy of the transmission, the process relied on the physical transportation of the written message. Even books that could be sent around the world, creating a single audience for an identical text, required the physical movement of the book as an object. But with the advent of electronic means of communication, instantaneous transportation a new form of empire expanded across space and became possible if messages around the globe became a reality.

When information is beamed through the airwaves or through wires and cable, it becomes far more difficult to regulate and control access to it. Many commentators have noted that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the break up of the Soviet Union were accelerated by the porous quality of their borders to democratic messages from the West made available through the electronic media.

Furthermore, if printing individualized what had been an essentially public oral culture, the effects of the electronic media have been both to reinforce the sense of individuality and privacy and to create new forms of what was called the "global village".

Like books, the electronic media have become, over time, personal, mobile, and private. People no longer have to sit in large theatres or even in living rooms to watch movies or television programmes. Miniaturization allows them to carry music and television and computer networks in the palms of their hands. Furthermore, like books, the electronic media have developed in two directions simultaneously: They have created larger audiences for particular messages (the Bible and the network of television), and they have created highly selective audience segments organised around particular tastes from philosophical books to the Home Shopping Network to thousands of bulletin boards and user groups in the cyberspace of the Internet.

It is clear that with the electronic media, for the first time in history, the vast majority of the world’s population can now participate in the dominant cultural forms and practices. There is some debate about whether the electronic media require literacy, whether the new media have introduced new forms of literacy, or whether they are creating an illiterate population!

Some observers of the contemporary world have argued that the electronic media are transforming basic modes of awareness and thinking. If oral cultures are largely auditory emphasising hearing and sound, and if print cultures are largely visual, emphasising sight and the ability to read, then the new electronic cultures are multi-sensorial, requiring a constant monitoring and coordinating of a wide range of sensory experience and information.

Moreover, although it is difficult to know how to describe the formal properties of today’s electronic media products, one thing is clear: they are rarely linear in their logic and narrative form.

The linear conventions of both time and space are constantly violated and played with, and the traditional logic of rationality seems irrelevant. And the impact of these technologies on the evolution of human existence is not at all clear. We are simply too close to the historical emergence of these technologies.