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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on January 31, 2023

The Development of Media from a Media Ecology Perspective

Thought Experiment: A World Without Almost Any Media
I want you to think about what your life would be like in these circumstances: Take away all forms of contemporary media including anything that uses electricity. Furthermore, take away anything that relies upon printed texts, that is, all books, newspapers, personal letters, and any instrument of writing. Indeed, take away the alphabet and any method by which to take spoken sounds and write those sounds down.
  • What would life be like?
  • How would you make a living? How would you know what to do day by day and season by season?
  • How many people do you think would be around in such a circumstance?
  • What happens to social groups, bands of people, etc. when some sort of illness or disease quickly spreads throughout the group?
History of Human Media

Human History from the Perspective of Media Ecology: from "Deep History" to the Present

Media Eras: (1) "Deep History" (2) Orality (3) Chirography ("Writing"/Literacy)  (4) Print  (5) Techno-Digital Age

Media Cultures: (1) Pre-History (2) Oral Culture  (3) Literate Culture  (4) Print Culture  (5) Techno-Digital Culture

Some General Principles of
the Media Ecological Perspective

1. The media environment -- that is, the tools available to communicate and maintain information -- have a profound effect upon the societies in which human beings live including how they think and how they carry out their daily lives.

2. Media build upon the human sensory-perceptual system and allow people to do things they otherwise could not be able to do.

3. Human beings in later media environments often live in ways that are very different than human beings in earlier media environments.

4. The 'Media Ecology Perspective" argues that each form of a medium has a kind of "bias" or particularly emphasizes some aspect of human cognitive/psychological functions. Bias here does NOT mean anything negative. Rather, "bias" is a form of an inclination or a tendency toward some aspect of reality. Media are seen as favoring or giving a kind of slant toward some aspect of human functions and abilities. In the chart above, I've identified the major medium "biases" that have emerged in each new media era or period.

World of Primary Orality and Oral Culture

This is the world before human beings invented writing. AND, well into the 20th century, IT CONTINUED TO BE THE ENVIRONMENT OF THOSE WHO DID NOT KNOW HOW TO READ OR WRITE.

In this world human beings depend(ed) upon verbal (oral) communication and memory as the ways of interacting with one another and retaining information.

  • The cognitive bias of this world lay with the voice and sound.
  • It emphasized careful listening and skillful speaking.
Fr. Walter Ong,
Dr. Hamid
Fr. Walter Ong, S.J. (Saint Louis University) in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy detailed important characteristics that mark oral cultures (no reading/writing) versus literate cultures (reading/writing exist). Building on Ong's work, Dr. Hamid Yeganeh (at Winona State University) has expanded the comparison in helpful ways in a recent (2021) article.

The  comparisons between Oral and Literate Cultures below are adapted from both Ong (182) and Table 1 of Yeganeh (2021, p. 4)
Oral Cultures
Literate Cultures (Reading/Writing)
Concrete. Acquired knowledge often remains concrete and closely references the human lifeworld. Attention is paid to actual or real situations rather than abstract speculations.
Abstract. Acquired knowledge is separate from immediate experience and is organized in abstract notions.
Additive. Concepts are added to each other by "and" conjunction.
Subordinative. Concepts are organized in subordinative (hierarchical) structures.
Redundant/Copious. Redundancy (repetition) is used to recall information and to maintain continuity in speech. Something may be described in many different ways to enhance memory.
Concise. Redundancy is not necessary as the reader can easily retrieve previous information. Conciseness (short, clear expression without unnecessary words) is preferred.
Emotionally Resonant. Messages often have a strong emotional resonance.
Accurate. Messages are accurate and contain evidence.
Homeostatic. Obsolete and unnecessary words (and concepts) are constantly eliminated and the vocabulary remains limited.
Accumulative. A large number of archaic (old) words are accumulated and the vocabulary tends to grow larger and larger.
Fluid Knowledge. Knowledge is subject to constant alteration (change) over time.
Solid Knowledge. Knowledge is written down and remains mainly unchanged.
Communal Learning. Learning is done in the community by apprenticeship, listening, and repeating what is heard.
Individual Learning. Learning is a neutral process that can be done via books, abstract instructions, and impersonal objects.
Mnemonic. Mnemonic patterns (memory aids) are widely used to retain and retrieve communicated information.
Analytic. Logical and analytic components of messages are emphasized.
Subjective Information. Information is subjective since it is constructed during an interaction between speaker and audience. An emphasis upon empathy and close participation by members of a group rather than by distance.
Objective Information. Knower and known are separated and information is objective (it does not depend upon who is giving or receiving it).
Simple. Simple economic systems and (relatively) limited progress in social and physical sciences.
Complex. Complex economic systems and significant progress in social and physical sciences.
Conservative/Traditionalist. It is better to continue to do what has been done or worked in the past rather than something entirely new. Reluctance to change
Innovative-Exploratory/Changeable. A willingness to innovate and explore new ways of dealing with challenges rather then clinging to past approaches. Speculation about the future

Types of "media" in Oral Culture

Rather than physical or technical inventions, media in oral culture are expressed via the use of the voice and the ability to remember. Thus, the types of media that might be cited would include

  • Orations: Different speaking styles and forms before a group to persuade the group to do something
  • Tribal Councils: Gathering together in order to consult jointly with one another on how to proceed. The group's expertise is greater than any single individual. If given the right to speak freely, multiple options may emerge forthe wisdom of the group to judge
  • Songs: In song (words and music together) a culture can more easily remember for many generations important events and approaches to life. Crucial beliefs of the group can be expressed in song (similar to what happens in religious settings today). Very long song cycles such as the famous epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, preserved vast amounts of cultural knowledge in ancient Greek society.
  • [Senagalese Griot]Storytelling: Very frequently, the poets and storytellers of a culture compose their tales (and narrative poems) in order to preserve for all time the memory of things which have happened in the past.

    • Within Celtic Irish culture before the advent of writing, the poet was called a "file" ("fili" in the plural) and it was his job "to pass stories and information down through the generations without making changes in those elements that were considered factual rather than embellish[ed]" {W}

    • In West African culture (to this day), there is a type of historian-storyteller-praise singer-poet called a "griot". These individuals pass down not only stories and songs from past generations, but also genealogical lists of who is descended from whom as well as new and important events that should be remembered in the future. {W
Essentially, in oral cultures, memory holds the identity of the group AND all of the accumulated knowledge of the world and the past. The death of someone who holds a memory is the loss of that fact forever in oral cultures.

The Development of Writing & Literate Culture

Unicode & Exemplar Scripts

Have you ever heard of "Unicode®" or the Unicode Consortium?

Developed in the late 1980s & early 1990s, Unicode® {W} is a standard adopted by Apple, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Sun, Sybase, Unisys and may other computer software developers to code every single alphabet or script used in the world.

Every single character – individual letters, numbers, symbols, or ideograms from both modern and ancient languages – has been given its own unique numerical identifier. There are currently 149,186 different characters already coded (in version 15.0.0, September, 2022) and there is room, ultimately, for over 1,100,000 characters (0hex to 10FFFFhex) if needed. The latest version of Unicode® includes scripts in 161 languages and added 4,193 Chinese, Japanese, and Korean more ideographs to reach over 80,000 different ideographs. (Unicode® 15.0.0, 2022 September 13).

Writing Systems

  • [Pictogram]Pictograms {W} & Ideograms {W}  
    • Pictogram = a written symbol or sign (an early form of an ideogram) which conveys its meaning by its similarity to the object it is representing
      • Originally developed by the Sumerians in the ancient Middle East about 3500-3300 BC (~ 4 KYA)
      • Even today, we have modern versions of pictograms by which to signal or convey information

    • ideogramsIdeogram = a written symbol which represents a concept or an idea. "Ideogram" is a more general notion than "pictogram" in that many ideograms can be arbitrary or conventional signs that may not look like a familiar object but still conveys a meaning to those who know what they mean.

  • [Logogram]Logograms {W} = a written/visual symbol which represents either a complete word or a "morpheme" (either a single consonant or a syllable).
    • Sumerian cunieform writing originated in pictograms but eventually became a logogram script around 3100 BC (5+ KYA)
    • Egyptian hieroglyphs are an early example of a logogram-type script. They may have emerged as early as 3300 BC (5+ KYA) & eventually there were more than 5,000 different hieroglyphs created.
    • Chinese Hanzi characters are a logogram-type script. They emerged by 1200-1050 BC (3-3.5 KYA) from earlier pictograms & ideograms.  
  • [Alphabet]Alphabets {W} = a written symbol in which each of the basic sounds (phonemes) of a spoken language are represented.
    • The first alphabet was developed by the Phoenicians {W} around roughly 1050 BC. Their alphabet did not have any symbols for the vowel sounds.
    • The ancient Greeks took over the entire Phoenician alphabet and added symbols for the vowel sounds. Their's is considered the first "true" alphabet because of its completeness. 

Associated Writing Technologies

  • Monuments & Wall Inscriptions: Permanent copies of important written information were inscribed on walls and other monuments from the earliest times of writing. Obviously, this is a very expensive form of writing which only the wealthiest could afford, i.e., usually the king or the religious hierarchy.
  • Clay tablets: Need to be small if sent over distances.
  • Papyrus {W}: Much lighter than clay, papyrus allowed writers to write much more in a convenient, light-weight, and relatively enduring way. Used throughout the Mediterranean region throughout the classical/ancient era.
  • Wax tablets: Can be used again and again for short messages and exchange between individuals. A stylus was used to etch words onto the tablet and the text could be easily erased.
  • Parchment {W}: This is a writing surface which is made from animal skins (calfskin, goatskin, sheepskin). Much more expensive than papyrus, it was used throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe from the ancient era up to the end of the Middle Ages. Vellum is a type of parchment which is made from calfskin and was considered to be the best surface on which to write. 
  • Paper: Developed by the Chinese about 2000 year ago, paper appeared in Europe around 1200 CE. It was vastly cheaper and eventually replaced the parchment which had been used for manuscripts for many years.
  • Manuscripts ('manu' = hand; 'script' = writing) {W}: these are documents which are written by hand. Until the invention of the printing press, both books and other kinds of documents were prepared as manuscripts. Manuscripts were produced all over the world, i.e., in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. These generally took two forms:
    • Scroll: A scroll of papyrus included writing which was done in columns of 2 or 3 inches in width and could extend up to about 30 feet in length. Scrolls were read by unrolling each page 
    • Codex: A book which is made up of a number of pages or leaves.

Chirography's Effects and the Development of Literary Culture

The study of chirography ('chiro' = 'by hand" & 'graph' = 'writing') explores how the invention of writing changed how human beings carried out their daily and social lives.
  • Until the advent of printing in the 15th century, knowing how to write and read was generally limited to a small percentage of the population, generally those who served the king, government, or church. In the ancient Roman world, there were many educated slaves who served as scribes for wealthy individuals or for the government. It is estimated that no more than 10% of the people in the Roman Empire could read and write. During the late classical and medieval periods in Europe (ca. 500-1400 CE), that percentage actually got lower.
  • Writing allows (a) recording important data that could be consulted or read again and again in the future, (b) exchanging important information with others at great distances and being able to monitor events far away, (c) establishing uniform sets of laws and procedures that might apply to large territories of land, (d) keeping track of financial transactions and legal ownership of property, (e) entering into long-term contracts with undisputed evidence of what was agreed to by the parties, etc. 
  • Thinking itself becomes both more highly internalized as writers go inside their minds to explore ideas more deeply and complexly. By putting those thoughts down on paper externally, writers can stand back and get some distance. Since spoken words disappear as soon as they are said, written words let authors spend time becoming more precise and sharpening what they want to say because they can go back again and again to what they have written. 
  • Since the expression of thought is externalized when put down in writing, it can be examined by others for longer periods of time. Individuals can read what others have written and spend time evaluating what they have read without having to specifically recall in memory what they had heard.
  • Notice that the historical development of broadly-embraced religions in both Europe and Asia have been closely tied to the written words: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all religions "of the Book." In the Vedas of Hinduism were written in Sanskrit in ca. 1500-500 BC. Similarly other Asian religions including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Daoism, Confucism, etc. relied upon a wide range of written texts.
What has been lost? The written word is different than the spoken word. The written word cannot or has difficulty conveying the prosody {W} of speech, that is, the emotional tones, loudness or softness of words, rhythms, emphases, irony or sarcasm, the facial expressions, and other qualities by which speakers convey their meaning. 


Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world. New York: Methuen (3rd ed., reissued in 2012 by Routledge).

Unicode® 15.0.0 (2022, September 13) announcement. Retrieved from https://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode15.0.0/

Yeganeh, H. (2021). Orality, literacy and the “great divide” in cultural values. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-04-2021-0088

This page was first posted on 2/6/14