Communications Revolutions

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2015


Changes in the technologies we use for communication are important because they change how we live. They change it a lot. The size of these changes are why these are called revolutions.

This section is about changes in how we communicate and how those changes have affected how we live.

The good old days

Back in the good old days, the Stone Age, mankind would communicate mostly by talking. Gestures and touching were also used -- waving, fighting, kissing and spanking being examples of these -- but voice communication in its various forms was the most common.

As mankind moved from the Stone Age to the Agricultural Age, one revolution was inventing and embracing various kinds of writing techniques.


The "commodity" use of writing, its first widespread use, was as an accounting tool -- it served better to keep track of important transactions than pure memory did. The oldest forms of writing that archeologists have discovered were connected with the earliest cities, and they recorded important trading transactions such as bride prices agreed to and taxes paid. After this accounting use became widespread then the many other more surprising uses were invented, such as history memorials, government decrees, and religious texts. (Keep in mind that this is just handwriting at this point, and close cousins such as chiseling words into rock -- no mass printing yet.)

Writing brought two major enhancements to communication: it could "remember" better than the human mind could, and it could move information much further and more easily than the alternative of moving a whole person who had the topic in his or her memory.

Writing has been around long enough that it has begun to influence human instinctive thinking. People around the world have a lot of respect for things that have been written down. A widespread example of this is the respect shown for holy texts. The archetypical Hollywood version is a misquote from the movie Ten Commandments, "So it is written, so it shall be."

In Agricultural Age societies reading and writing are specialty occupations. This was the work of scribes. It was a lot of work to write things down, so there wasn't much to read, so there wasn't any demand for a lot of readers.

The next communication revolution comes when writing lots of stuff gets a whole lot easier. This is the printing revolution.


The process of inventing printing has gone through many stages. One of the earliest was carving flat wood blocks with drawings or writings, inking them, and pressing some kind of cloth or paper to them to make a printed page.

The famous revolution came in the 1440's when German Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press system that used moveable type and a faster way of pressing pages to the print blocks. The commodity use of this invention was printing a holy text: The Gutenberg Bible.

This new printing system made a big difference because lots of words could now be created quickly. This made a difference because:

o With lots more words to read, the reading skill became valuable to many more people. This got so valuable that by the 1800's the Western Europeans and North Americans were seeing the advantages in universal education -- having everyone learn how to read and write. It turned out that this skill -- literacy -- became part of entering the Industrial Age, and this was the big motivator for having all children attend schools.

o With words so much easier to reproduce, it became effective to write about many more topics. The first surprise use was how-to books. Many inventors learned to read and write, and started writing books about their neat inventions, and many others started taking advantage of these neat inventions. New discoveries moved around the literate world much more quickly than they did around the illiterate world, so discovering new things became more valuable. And one of the surprise fallouts of this growing interest in inventing was inventing patents and copyrights.

o Another surprise was that as printing got faster, cheaper and better, the formats of what got printed also grew in great profusion. Books, magazines, newspapers, bulletins... all sort of new formats directed at all sorts of new audiences and with all sorts of different purposes became common. This was a far, far cry from having a handful of monks laboriously copying a handful of manuscripts between prayers.

The result of this revolution was that people could move many more ideas rapidly, and as a result they talked about many more topics than was common in the Agricultural Age. This ability for many people to talk about many topics is one of the key differences between Industrial Age and Agricultural Age cultures.

This fulminating of new ideas was the source of a lot of inspiration, and a lot of vexation. The social revolutions of the 1800's being examples of both.


The next great revolution was in the speed of communicating. The value of fast communication over long distances was well known even in Neolithic Village communities. The constant question is how to do it faster, better and cheaper?

An Agricultural Age example of solving this challenge was horse-mounted messengers. Horse-mounted messengers were fast, but expensive, so typically only governments could afford to maintain such a network, and the network was small in capacity (bandwidth) -- not much information was moved over it. Another example was beacons and smoke signaling. These were even faster than horses, but even more limited in bandwidth, and once again expensive. Typically only the military arm of governments found this kind of network worth the cost.

The cost and usefulness breakthrough came in the 1830's when electricity started being used to transmit the messages. This new system came to be called the telegraph. Three of the people involved in commercializing this idea were Englishmen Cooke and Wheatstone and American Samuel Morse of Morse Code fame.

The speed element made a big difference in what was useful to transmit. Instead of how-to manuals or religious texts, the hot item for this revolution was scheduling information. The commodity use for telegraphs was helping railroads communicate train scheduling information faster, better and cheaper.

The surprise uses developed as the telegraph networks spread wider and wider. In 1861 the telegraph reached across North America from the East Coast to California. This famously put an end to the Pony Express company that had started just eighteen months earlier.

The surprise use for telegraph was moving hot news-style information as well as scheduling information. The Crimean War in 1850 was one of the first wars documented with telegraphic information -- both the military and news services used it.

The revolution was further extended when voice communication was added -- the telephone. People could now talk over long distances in real time. But, telephoning was expensive, and it was just a one-to-one style of talking, not broadcasting the way printing was.

The next revolution changed that.


Radio systems developed slowly starting around 1900. They started as a wireless offshoot of telegraphy. Commercial voice broadcast radio began in the US, England, Canada and other parts of the world in 1920. Keep in mind, the big holdup was not transmitters but receivers: What was the point in broadcasting if a lot of people weren't listening? In these early years there was no advertising sustaining these efforts, which meant no commercial involvement, so they were very experimental. When marketplace uses for broadcasting developed, then the industry boomed.

The commodity use for broadcast radio was sending out news, education and entertainment information. The surprise use was how popular entertainment became. It became steadily more popular and came to dominate the medium.

Another surprise use was how valuable radio became as a political tool. One of the early examples of this was US president Franklin Roosevelt's Fireside Chats in the 1930's.

Radio was audio only. The next revolution was adding video.


Like radio, television developed slowly -- starting in the 1920's and becoming widely popular in the US and Britain in the 1950's -- and it continues to evolve in format to present day.

This revolution was adding video to radio's audio -- it was like the difference between being blind and just hearing things, and then being able to see! An impressive difference.

The commodity use for TV, like radio, was news, education and entertainment. And like radio, the surprise use was more and more focus on entertainment. The famous expression of the day (1961) was, "TV has become a vast wasteland".

High Tech Relatives

One of the surprises of the TV revolution was creating "high tech relatives". Relatives are people that a person is familiar with, and comes to know, and either trust or distrust with great confidence. Historically, these are people that a person meets in person. But with TV many of those people became people who were seen on a screen. (Movie celebrities also fall in this category.) My term for this kind of personality is a high tech relative. They are important because they become opinion influencers for the community.

Television was a revolution, but not quite as impressive as it sounds at first because the equipment to make the video happen -- the cameras -- were heavy, bulky and expensive. This meant that the topics to be viewed had to come to the cameras, not vice versa.

The next revolution was breaking that barrier.

Handheld video and other personalizing of communication

When the topics to be viewed have to come to the camera, a lot of control can be exercised over what the camera sees. This control is a form of censorship, and many government officials and other people with influence had a lot of control over what got shown on TV. As an example, one non-government official with a lot of control in the 1960's was Ed Sullivan, the host of the popular Ed Sullivan Show.

The size and cost of both cameras and TV's declined steadily. As the size and cost of cameras declined, what could be shown on the cameras steadily grew. The commodity use for this was man-on-the-street interviews at news events.

A surprise use of this technology was reducing the violence in social protesting. Neither the protesters or the government cracking down on them could be as violent as they were before hand held video equipment became widespread. This happened because whomever was shown as being the most violent, the community looked upon with disapproval.

One example of this trend was the Rodney King video in 1991 which showed him being beaten by police.

Another example of this change happening was the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989. In both these cases the violence was ten times less than what occurred in their predecessor unrests. (the Russian Revolution in 1918 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966)


How we communicate makes a big difference in how we live. The difference shows up in many, many ways. We can move ideas around more easily, and as a result we think differently. We think about many more different topics. And finally, we get more outraged at violence. This means we are living lives that are much more mellow than those of our forefathers and mothers.

All in all, some really good changes.


--The End--