Lessons from this book

The Ascent of Media describes more than 3,000 years of media history and profiles the technologies, people, organizations, policies and economics that have brought us to the media landscape of today. The book is mainly focused on the past but has some lessons for the future.


Digital production revolutionised the media from the late 1980s making it far cheaper and quicker to create content. Word processing, ink jet printing, electronic news gathering and computer generated imagery all had a very beneficial effect on the economics and working practices of media organizations.


But now digital distribution offers a more radical challenge to established media providers. The rapid introduction of tablet computers combined with high speed wireless internet is creating a revolution as dramatic as when Gutenberg invented movable type or Marconi realised the potential of radio waves. It threatens traditional revenue streams and calls into question long-held beliefs about copyright and privacy.


The development of media normally starts with a new technology:  paper (led to documents), movable type (enabled printing), lithography (allowed colour posters), electro-magnetism (transmitted messages over the telegraph), radio waves (radio and TV) and printed circuits (the internet and web).


Turning this technology into a medium needs social organization and political approval combined with the economics to pay for it.  The resulting medium is, thus, shaped by the interaction of politics, economics and technology. This so-called “PET” theory of media explained on another page.


The traditional, separate, media forms are now converging into one screen-based experience which allows us, as consumers, to choose exactly how, where and when we watch, read or listen. The lessons of media’s history suggest a number of key trends for the future:


The screen will become the way we access most media content.   Screens are able to mimic the experience of paper in the way that paper itself mimicked, and indeed improved on, the experience of clay tablets, parchment and vellum. Audio, video and text pages will all reach us via screens which will be on a wall or desk and via tablets and smart phones in our hands.  In many cases we will use two screens simultaneously. People now watch TV whilst accessing Facebook on their lap-tops to comment on the programme.  Printing on paper is simply too inefficient and linear to survive as a mass media channel but will continue as premium priced niche products like certain books and magazines.


Old media do not die out they influence their successors and modify themselves.  This is Riepl’s Law - explained in the final section of The Ascent of Media As each new medium evolved there were confident predictions that old ones would vanish.  But they did not.  The telegraph did not kill newspapers. Radio did not mean the end of recorded music. Television did not result in the death of cinema. In the face of a new competitor the old format had to change and some traditional companies did fail but the medium itself modified and survived.  The same will undoubtedly be true for the web.  It will greatly alter heritage media but will not mean the end of them.


Media content cannot all be free. There is much talk of the web leading to content being available at no cost but in reality all content must be paid for somehow.  The lure of the content can create an audience who can be persuaded to buy things – a technique going back to medieval travelling players. Some content creators are prepared to offer their material at no cost to the consumer because it acts as a marketing device – typically a rock band offering free downloads as they make their income from touring.   But the bulk of indirect media income comes from advertising where the value of the aggregated audience is “sold” to someone with a message to deliver.  However the advertising economy is simply not big enough to pay for all content creation. We will continue to buy theatre and cinema tickets some forms of micro payments, subscriptions and pay walls will have to emerge to fund niche media channels.


Copyright protection is needed to stimulate creativity.  Copyright protection for authors started in England in 1710 with the Statute of Anne – prior to that the rights rested with the printer.  This was logical as before mass printing intellectual property was protected by the significant physical cost of making copies.  Soon after copyright was introduced Daniel Defoe wrote the first real novel in the English language – Robinson Crusoe – and the professions of writer, journalist and composer started to appear. Digital media present the challenge that copying a digital file creates a clone – an exact original at no cost – unlike the old analogue world where unauthorised copies cost money and often lost quality. We need a new Statue of Anne to reward creative endeavour without preventing innovation.


Interactive digital media are changing society:  In the time of Plato and Aristotle the size of a society was thought to be limited to the number of people who could hear an orator’s voice simultaneously - for a society to function all the members needed to be able to communicate with each other.  Successive waves of media have extended this workable size.  Printing and newspapers led, in some ways, to the development of the nation state; broadcasting has blurred national identity and the internet is creating a truly global society.  We are now able to confront issues such as climate change on a global scale. And Governments now find it almost impossible to control the media consumption of their own people.



Digital technology has had a huge impact on media - both good and bad. But the future of media looks assured as we come to terms with a new form of media economics. See video below




New Media Economics




Subpages (1): Riepl's Law