Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The 18th Century and Participation Media

As our students explore the 18th century and the concept of participation (as in digital culture and Web 2.0), I'd like to connect the two areas in a couple of ways.

In the 18th century, a new sense of "the public" emerged. There were many reasons for this, but high among them was the emergence of mass media. Sure, printing had been around since the mid-15th century, but it was in the 1700s that printing was both frequent and cheap enough for literally hundreds of thousands of people to be regularly consuming the same content tied closely to current events. This is the time when periodicals emerged and when newspapers began to take off.

London coffee houses were
vital social centers in the 18th century
We've taken for granted this sort of thing for centuries, but think about how much that changed the way people thought and acted.
When it is actually possible to be simultaneously informed about things on a massive scale, it had to change the kinds of conversation that people had, and the way they thought about others. And when you add to that the frequency of publication -- well, it suddenly became possible (and then expected) to be current. "Current events" didn't exist before there was a means for tracking them -- at least not in any meaningful sense. A mass medium gets calibrated to the present in a way printing never was oriented previously. Or, to put it another way, the present became something measurable and distinct, tied to the cycles of news and publishing and more so than to the seasons, festivals, and church calendars that united people previously.

This new mass medium had an insatiable hunger for content. Think about it: when someone establishes a newspaper or periodical, they make a commitment to send messages regularly. What do you get when you have massive publishing of common content on a regular basis? You get a medium that does not require the same amount of time to develop thought as happens with book writing. You get news and current events. You get advertising. You get get pop culture for the first time.

We mostly think of mass media in terms of the big broadcast media of the 20th century. If so, it may be a mistake to call printing a mass medium in the 18th century, since the print medium had much more in common with the 21st century blogosphere than with 20th century radio or television. This is due to how 18th century information circulated and the highly participatory nature of the medium. The early newspaper or periodical was not a broadcast medium; it was a social vehicle. 

People participated in 18th century print culture in two vital ways: by gathering together in small public groups to consume and respond to content coming from the weekly or daily presses; and by contributing content on a scale never before attempted.

As for the first mode of participation, consider the coffee house (in England) or the salon (in France). These informal gathering places became enormously popular -- helped in part by improved urban conditions, the growth of shops and shopping among the middle class, and by imports like chocolate. Yes, people found great pleasure in gathering in the counterpart to today's Starbucks to sip a cup of their favorite beverage and share opinions about the latest edition of The Rambler or The Spectator.

Some believe that the political movements toward democracy that happened in this period were propelled to a large degree by the combination of mass media print and those places where the printed word was discussed, the coffee houses. That argument makes a lot of sense when you take into account the way that printed publications were much more participatory than ever before. The numbers of people who were literate or had the means and wherewithal to get into print was still a small slice of the pie, but relative to preceding times, there came a great influx of new writers (including women, as well as those not of the highest social classes). The Female Tatler came out as a counterpart to The Tatler, for example. For the first time, a broad range of new issues began to be discussed and addressed, such as domestic life, or social ills like unwed mothers or crime.

Science was also participatory in the 18th century in ways that would melt away as science became increasingly professionalized across the 19th and 20th centuries. In the beginning, periodicals such as the Royal Society of London's Philosophical Transactions were vehicles not for academics nor professional researchers, but for laymen who were interested in applying empiricism (the observation and  measurement of nature) and circulating their observations among interested parties. And, like today, a lot of very silly stuff got circulated due to the participation of so many amateurs (and the lack of formal peer review). Wild speculations, made up stories -- sound similar to interent culture today? Of course, the very medium that gave fuel to idiots and amateurs became the means to correct and corral those excesses. It turned out that an unfettered press (one free not just from government censorship but from too much oversight by professional or academic societies) only messed with knowledge in the short run. Once in circulation, bad ideas could be checked (verified as well as kept in control).

The Enlightenment, which came to fruition in the 18th century, took place in part due to the massive spread of a participatory medium, which was printing that had grown into periodical publishing in large urban areas. There were not so many controls on content in those periodicals as there would later be. It was all about social participation on a grand scale.

If our day compares to the Enlightenment, will the worlds of computing and networks usher us into new political arrangements the way that the printing press sustained experiments in democracy? Are we warming up to a more direct mode of democracy, setting aside some aspects of a representative system? Whatever we are headed for politically, we know that the new media are becoming big players in the outcome.