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A Social History of the Media
May 26, 2006

There are so many possible ways to write a comprehensive history of press, radio, television and the web, so many ways to glue together an account of the inventions, social influences and media theories, that such a project would daunt all but the most confident (or the most unwary). The boundaries of any such work are impossible to set: there is all the economics, politics and diplomacy of a thousand years to deal with, religious doctrine, developments in engineering and transport, not forgetting the art forms and evolving social ideas. To tell the story comprehensively and interestingly is a great challenge. Nonetheless, this joint work, a masterpiece of compression in its first edition, lives up to the claims of its title in this, its second.

What Asa Briggs and Peter Burke do is to attach seven great themes to the various technological eras and bring us, convincingly, from the Iliad to the internet, interweaving the narrative of the history of the communication technologies with explanatory social theory; an unobtrusive literature review runs through the eight chapters. Moreover, there is plenty said about personalities, historical and contemporary, which renders the book very easy to read, although it contains an enormous amount of information.

There have been many communications revolutions between Gutenberg and Bill Gates, and the breathlessness with which we tend to look at the information machinery of our own age can distort the backward glance. Everything seems to have been heading towards now. But, of course, everything did not. There is half a millennium between the development of printing in the Orient and Gutenberg's converted wine press. It takes a lot of social investigation to explain the reason for that. Moreover, media history contains so many recursions: rhetoric died at the Renaissance, but it helps to know about it when thinking about radio. The web in a sense facilitates a permanently incomplete text, sustaining infinite acts of revision - but that is what happened in the medieval scriptorium: authorless revisions of randomly surviving texts.

Utopian speculation has played a big role in media history, and it takes a visionary Victorian historian such as Briggs to bring out the way in which the hopes and expectations of pioneers and inventors influenced the course of events. Predictive optimism has surrounded every novelty. The evolution of the media has been greatly influenced by the speculations that have attached to each device: printing was thought by some 15th-century readers to be sorcery; media prophets in the 1970s thought the cable would help solve the traffic problems of the modern city. Overhopeful extrapolations have fuelled real change. This book could add great strength to media studies teaching.

Anthony Smith is the former president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Second Edition

Author - Asa Briggs and Peter Burke
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 304
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3511 3 and 3512 1

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