The Cumulative Nature of Media and its Blending on the Internet

In November 2020, having written nearly 5000 entries in HistoryofInformation over the past more than twenty years, I have observed few overriding generalizations that come to the surface of the tens of thousands of facts and presumably millions of words in the website. One generalization that has been confirmed over and over again is the cumulative nature of media. By this I mean that new media rarely totally replace older means of recording, distributing and storing information. Instead, older and former media that contain useful information tend to be preserved and may remain consulted by researchers. Some of the most obvious examples of this generalization come out of the so-called printing "revolution" caused by Gutenberg's invention of printing by movable type in the mid-15th century. By the end of the 15th century printing technology spread widely over the countries of Europe, and was established in 282 cities. Yet in spite of the increase in speed of production and distribution of information caused by the introduction of printing, and the resulting cost savings, and the gradual dominance of printing over manuscript copying, information was still produced, distributed and stored in manuscript for centuries thereafter, well into the 18th century for specialized usage.

Printing an edition of a text was often a way of safe-guarding a text that might have surivived in only a handful of manuscript copies made during the Middle Ages. An edition of two or three hundred copies provided reasonable assurance that some of the copies would survive. On the other hand once a printer issued a printed edition of a manuscript there was the tendency to destroy the original manuscript since, as the printer might have assumed, the manuscript would no longer be needed. Because there was nearly always some difference between the manuscript and the printed text information was lost with the destruction of the manuscript on which the printed text was based.

There are numerous examples of the relationships between manuscript copying and printing in HistoryofInformation, and we know that some people persist in writing documents by hand today. A dramatic example of the persistance of handwriting in the 20th century was Shelby Foote's writing his huge 1.5 million word The Civil War: A Narrative entirely by hand with a nib pen, and later transcribing his manuscript into typewritten copy. The work was eventually printed in three volumes totalling 2,968 pages. Admittedly Foote's using a nib pen rather than a typewriter for such an immense manuscript was an exceptional example of writing by hand in the 20th century.

A different example of the persistance of media is the survival of more than 500,000 ancient papyri and papyrus fragments from the deserts of Egypt. Even though papyrus had been superceded by parchment or vellum it continued to be used in Europe for special purposes as late as the twelfth century, and vellum continued to be used as a medium for writing and printing well into the 21st century even though paper was introduced to Europe as early as 1100. Because papyrus deteriorated in damp climates most of the papyrus records created in Europe during the Middle Ages deteriorated beyond the point of recognition, and what survived are mainly papyri from the dry Egyptian desert. Ironically, from around the same time period as ancient Egypt, destruction of buildings in ancient Mesopotamia by fire probably caused the archives of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform script, such as the Library of Ashurbanipal, to harden like clay fired in a kiln, and therefore to survive intact to modern times.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the cumulative nature of media, especially when media deteriorates to point where it cannot be used. The most prevalent examples of this are books printed on acidic wood pulp paper that crumbles when handled. Other examples are old movie films that can even become explosive because of chemical reactions in the film can. When there is valuable information on deteriorating media of this type conservators attempt either to restore the paper or convert the information to another medium. Before computing and digitization that we use for preserving text and images today brittle books were often microfilmed, and deteriorating movie films were copied on to more stable film stock. Microfilm records have a long shelf-life, and may still be accessed with microfilm or microfiche readers today. Most typically old films are being converted to digital files for streaming or recording on Blu-rays or DVDs while the original movie film, if stable, or transferred to stable film, may be preserved in film vaults.

Though changes in media may be revolutionary in their impact they do not necessarily replace prior media. After their invention in the 19th century typewriters did not replace handwritten letters, and in the 20th century radio news did not replace newspapers, television did not replace radio, and the Internet has not replaced newspapers, though it has caused most of them to convert from print to electronic distribution. The Internet has also deprived newspapers of one of their greatest traditional sources of revenue: want ads, with the development of stand-alone websites, most prominently Craigslist. Even electronic books or ebooks have not replaced printed books, and email has not completely replaced sending letters on paper. Inevitably, over time most probably more information is lost than is preserved, but when a medium for information remains functional it may retain some users, and information in it may be preserved, no matter how antiquated it may be.

Until the Internet we would generally discuss various media separately, such as books, sound recording, films, television and radio. What has been most revolutionary about information and media in our time is the blending of traditional print media and electronic media on the Internet, allowing us to make VOIP telephone calls, send and receive emails, exchange text messages, watch high definition television, do video conferencing, stream films, share electronic files, etc.  For this we have no anticedents; the conversion so many different media to digital form transmissible over the Internet is a complete change. Here the cumulation of media has been collected into a totality that is completely new, and with the development of interactive social media on the Internet--another innovation-- we have seen the most profound impact upon our politics. Yet with all the blending of traditional media on the Internet the individual media, the histories of which are traced on HistoryofInformation, remain in existence, benefiting from new technologies, and reflecting the latest dimensions in the cumulative nature of media.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 21, 2020