Media history

Revolutions in Communication is a critically acclaimed survey of media history now available through  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher, Continuum International Press.  The book has topped the Amazon sales list for media history for two years and has now gone into a second printing.

The cover illustration is an 1883 solar powered printing press used to promote new ideas about energy.

The book is a social and technological history that explores four major epochs of the mass media through the technologies that characterized their development —   printing, imaging,  broadcasting and digital media.

The historical narrative in Revolutions in Communication centers around technological change — a common thread that unites global media history. This approach also provides an alternative to nationalistic and professionally oriented narratives that have guided media history in the past.

Revolutions in Communication  points out that communication technologies often change because an  older media does not speak in the voice of a newer generation. Innovators and  inventors then find ways to use new technology to circumvent the old barriers. Historians call this a social construction of technology.

This trend — circumvention as a social construction of technology —  is particularly evident in the digital revolution. However, the same threads can be found in the history of printing, imaging and broadcasting as well.  It’s the reason why the early 20th century muckrakers published in magazines,  and not newspapers. It’s the reason why the penny press was so successful in the 1830s and the press barons of the late 19th century were able to create newspaper empires.  And this inability to speak in the voice of a new generation is one reason why newspaper technology was so spectacularly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century.

About the history of mass media:

It’s no longer sufficient (if indeed it ever was) to simply present an isolated,  progressive, narrative history of American journalism. This is not to be critical of previous textbook authors but rather to say that times are changing and, as usual, media historians are struggling to catch up.

Surely the fact that new media has broken down international barriers must be part of any serious topical treatment of media history today.  Surely, also, the interdependent nation-state /  print media institution, with a relationship now over five centuries old,  is only one  thread of an emerging  global media history that should also include the digital communications revolution.

As Mitchell Stevens said in his Call for an International History of Journalism:

To attempt to separate the history of American journalism from developments overseas seems … as foolish as attempting to separate the history of journalism in Ohio or Kansas from what was happening in Boston, Philadelphia and New York… A kind of ignorance – which would not be tolerated in literature departments, in theater departments, in art departments, in science departments – is routinely accepted in journalism departments. American journalism history is dangerously and unflaggingly parochial.

The same  parochial nationalism is even more evident in public relations, advertising, broadcasting, and other communications fields, partly because in the past, communications history was usually valued as preparation for students aiming for careers in media.   As noted in this book’s  introduction to historical concepts, historians who hope to inspire future generations by honoring the heroes of the past often oversimplify and omit the mistakes and connections that provide historical lessons and paths for ongoing inquiry.

Constructing a history that even approaches both international breadth and historical depth creates a very serious problem: In a field that is already struggling to contain the size of textbooks (and student workloads), how could that be accomplished?

One solution is to take advantage of the new media that this book is designed to describe.  So this book’s web site will be one focal point for an international history of the media that is already begun on a variety of collaborative web sites such as Wikipedia. Since we live in revolutionary times, we ought to reflect and model those revolutionary new modes of communication in the way communication history is taught and written.

With that in mind, students and scholars may find this book’s web site valuable for links to wikis, timelines and other resources that can enhance international and interdisciplinary understanding of the history of mass media.  The author is particularly interested in research suggestions for students and in links to essays that describe the lives of media professionals in a cultural context or as part of a professional biography.

Revolutions in Communication begins with the idea that the best way to read history is with a conceptual toolkit.  Students should have some idea of what history is all about, there are two items to begin with.  The first is a quick overview of historians who exemplify different approaches to historical research and writing.  The second is a glimpse at how historians have seen technology in general and media history in particular.

This book then proceeds on a mostly chronological basis through the four mass media revolutions: print, visual, electronic and digital.

* July 10, 2012 sales rank at Amazon:

  • Revolutions in Communication (Kovarik) —  #37,382
  • Covering America (Daly)  — #242,809
  • Mightier than the Sword (Strietmatter) — #249,311

The textbook is being used at many universities, including:

  • The University of Oregon (Syllabus  )
  • Radford University (Syllabus)
  • San Francisco University (Syllabus)
  • The University of Western Ontario
  • Marymount University (California)
  • University of California at Merced

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