Getting to the Interactive Age

 “Before the telegraph, there was no separation between transportation and communication.”
Daniel Czitron, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982) 3.

 Most scholars mark the dawn of the interactive age and the digital revolution in the United States with the success of the first electronic telegraph line in 1844. Previous to that moment, communication was dependent upon the speed of the messenger to traverse the distance between sender and receiver. With the advent of electronic transmission, a message could actually move across a geographic distance faster than a postal deliver person, carrier pigeon or transportation vehicle could carry it.  Put in context with the invention of other communications mediums, it is considered the initiation of a fourth age of human communications. 

Human communications has evolved through four commonly accepted eras: oral, written, printed and electronic. (See Media Timelines for visual presentations of this evolution.) For the purposed of our conversation, I would like to nuance these slightly to recognize the particular contributions of the digital revolution within the electronic age.  In doing so, the four eras represented still include the oral and the written, but shift the final two within Mass Media and Interactive Media.  By briefly reviewing the history of the development of human communications and their particular strengths and limitations, the rationale for this shift, particularly in terms of the course, will become clearer. After presenting the technological ages of the media and commenting on their significance for the Christian Church, I will discuss the significance of the paradigm shifts from one medium to another, particularly for religious educators and pastoral ministers working within the Electronic Age.

A. Oral

From the dawn of communication, humans shared thoughts and information through the use of all the senses – touch, taste, smell and sight, as well as hearing; however, the first age, the Oral Age, recognizes the primacy of human articulations of sound, and later words. In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong S.J. argues the overwhelming dominance of oral communication by noting that “of all the many thousands of languages, possibly tens of thousands, spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to the degree to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature!” (p. 7) 

Ong argues that while primarily oral cultures include some degree analytic ability, breaking material into various components, “abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of states truth is impossible without writing and reading.” (Ong, Orality, 8) He continues to by discussing the impact on learning noting that people in an oral culture “learn by apprenticeship – hunting with experienced hunters, for example – by discipleship, which is a kind of apprenticeship, by listening, by repeating what they hear, by mastering proverbs and ways of combining and recombining them, by assimilating other formulary materials, by participating in a kind of corporate retrospection – not by study in the strict sense.” (Ong, Orality, 9) Thus, primarily oral cultures embrace story telling.  Much like Jeanne’s description of her family’s history shared around a fireplace or dining room table, the hallmark of the oral age were the memories passed from one generation to another.

The Oral tradition is important to Christianity because Storytelling was at the heart of the beginning of the Jesus Movement that later evolved into the Christian Church. Rooted in Judaism’s deep oral tradition, Jesus’ apostle and disciples shared their experience of Jesus and his message through proclamation and conversation.  In small groups and large, in the open expanse of fields and in designated “house-churches,” people gathered to tell stories, to re-member Jesus and his message, to support one another in living his vision and to share their lives, including a meal. In so doing, they became part of a living tradition that maintained Jesus’ presence and acted to establish the Reign of God; a process that continues today.

B. Written communications

Written forms of communication appeared about 3300 B.C.E. Someone or some group invented a visual form for expressing their oral speech.  Hieroglyphics, cuneiform, and alphabetic characters developed as standard signs of specific meanings. Using various techniques – etched in stone or soft clay, printed on papyrus and later paper, the placement of these signs and letters on a medium created a permanent form for passing ideas and information not only from one generation to the next, but – depending on its durability – across multiple generations.  By placing one’s thoughts and stories on paper, the “knower” and the “known” were separated; for the first time, a distance was created such that analysis, critique, introspection and self-examination became possible.  In freeing the mind from remembering the story, writing changed not only what was thought, but also how thought occurred. 

The letters attributed to Paul from about 50-52 A.D. are the earliest identified written Christian records. As Paul’s mission to the Gentiles expanded the geographic bounds of the Jesus movement, these letters provided leadership and direction for the emerging communities, shared information about the Jesus movement in general, and offered instruction on the why’s and the ways to live as Jesus commanded.  As those who had direct and secondary contact with Jesus began to die and Jesus’ return seemed less imminent (typically dated as 80 AD and beyond), the need for preservation led members of the faith community to write down their versions of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and teachings.

The relationship between oral and written forms of Christian communication is evident in Mark Powell’s description of the evolution of the meaning of the term “gospel.”  In Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, Powell provides the definition of “gospel” as the “good news” and documents how it passed rather quickly through four stages of expression during the 1st Century: 1) Jesus’ Preaching, 2) the content of the early Christian communities’ preaching about the death and resurrection of Christ, 3) the preaching that summarized the ministry of Jesus and the good news about God, and 4) the books that provide a written form to the oral traditions. Through a series of subsequent redactions, codification into canon, and translations into other languages, this Gospel provided both the early faith community and the contemporary Christian access to its origins.  This permanent record helps the community in its effort to re-member Christ with the faith community.

C. “Mass Media and Interactive” instead of “Print and Electronic”

Most communications theorists discuss the third and fourth ages in terms of the Print and Electronic Ages.  While there is value to this classification, I believe there are more similarities between mass media that is printed and mass media that is distributed electronically (i.e. mono-directional “passive” media like radio, television, cable), then including the mono-directional “passive” media with multi-directional “interactive” media (i.e. telephone, videoconferencing technologies, many forms of the Internet).  With this caveat in mind, we can consider the potential of mass media print and electronic media as well as the current innovation of interactive media.

C1. Mass Media-Print

Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 C.E. initiated the Third Age of Human Communication, but he did not invent printing as is commonly presumed.  Printing processes were known to exist as early as 1350 C.E. with the Egyptians processes for printing books.  Romans could read a daily newspaper, the Acta Diurna, which was printed on papyrus as early as 131 C.E.  Signs, symbols and letters were carved on wooden blocks, inked, then printed on papyrus and other material one page at a time.  Surprising to some, moveable type also pre-existed Gutenberg’s contribution.  In Mythmakers: The Gospel, Culture and Media, William Fore reminds his readers that moveable type was used in China by the 11th Century and metal type was first used to print a book in Korea in 1250.  Gutenberg’s contribution, which revolutionized the industry, was the systematic mechanization of the process with interchangeable parts, similar to Ford’s much later development of the assembly line. Not limited to text, later advances in the printing process also allowed the inclusion of still images (etchings, lithographs, photographs, etc.).

In addition to the strength of the written word that enabled the separation of knower and know, Gutenberg’s process led to the mass distribution of images, thoughts and ideas.  As the book came of age by 1500, the use of the vernacular took the forefront.  In Pedagogy, Printing and Protestantism, Carmen Luke states, “The increasing output of books in vernacular high and low German undoubtedly gave more people access to information traditionally written in Latin. And although Latin still predominated in scholarly works… the book reading public became from then on… increasingly a lay public – made up in large part of women and merchants, many of whom had hardly any knowledge of Latin.” (60) The expanded availability of the printed text along the use of colloquial language marked the creation of popular culture.  Conversation was no longer limited to the local town square and written discourse was not reserved for the privileged that could afford access to hand lettered texts.  A type of “global” awareness was initiated by a printed medium that could be printed in large quantities at a significantly more affordable price. This transformation is best seen in the impact of the printing press on the religious community. 

An interesting convergence of Gutenberg’s refinement of mechanized printing technology with the formulation of early Protestant discourses on religious, social and political reform in Germany illuminates the transformation of communications media and church’s embrace of it. Luke highlights that although the printing press in Europe produced its first book in 1450 and that by the beginning of the 16th C, European presses had been in production for 50 years producing some 30,000-50,000 editions, it took the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation to inaugurate a mass production revolution. The coincidence of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517 with this expanding media revolution meant that there was no way Luther’s message would be limited to those who passed the doors of Wittenberg castle church. As Luke tells it, two weeks after Luther posted his Theses with the intent of an academic dialogue, some reform minded activists had published them and distributed them throughout Europe.  Quoting E. Geck’s biography of Johannes Gutenberg, Luke proclaims, “Such a rapid spreading of the doctrines of Luther would have been inconceivable without printing.” (72) He claims that this is the first time in history that a propaganda campaign was conducted through the medium of the press! 

Luther’s emphasis on providing every individual access to Scripture and the emerging Protestant movement’s freedom from clerical prohibitions led to the growth of the book trade and the proliferation of vernacular versions of the Bible.  The first book printed on Gutenberg’s press, the 1452 Mainz Latin Bible (see page from the edition), had a first run of 200 copies. By the mid 1500s, they were being printed by the thousands.  According to Luke, printer Hans Lufft issued 100,000 copies of the Bible within 40 years between 1534 and 1574 – all dedicated to the Lutheran cause! In addition to vernacular Bibles and Luther’s theses, sermons, addresses and treatises about topics ranging from the new understandings of the faith (catechisms) to family relations and childrearing published in pamphlet form were proliferating the continent.

At the same time as German Lutheranism embraced the individual’s inner authority to relate to God through the Word, Catholics were admonished to rely on the “Church’s” authority; Pope Leo X issued an edict in 1515 requiring imprimaturs for all “Catholic” publications and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) prohibited the distribution of vernacular bibles in all Catholic regions.  The technology of the printed word also aided the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation’s codification and standardization of teachings and policies through the publication and distribution of the Code of Canon Law, The Catechism of the Council of Trent, and liturgical guides. Thus, while the effect of the ability to widely distribute images, ideas and information depends on which side of a theological or political issue you embrace, it is obvious that the printed form of Mass Media established an efficient and cost-effective means to permanently record ideas and information and rapidly distribute them across wider geographic areas than previously possible.

C2. Mass Media-Electronic

As has been commented upon through our listserv, printed data is helpful in standardizing ideas and distributing them widely, but there are many verbal and visual cues that impact human communication.  After the invention of the telegraph that established a means for sharing sounds representing words, the development of the transistor and later electronic devices provided the means to distribute actual voices and, later moving images. Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1844, began the prolific series of advancements that included Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876, Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877, Lumiere and Edison’s development of motion pictures in 1891, Marconi’s Wireless in 1895, Radio broadcasting in 1920, Sound movies in 1927, Television broadcasting in 1927, Computers in 1949, Cable Television in 1950, Global Satellites in 1957 and the beginnings of the Internet (continuous evolution through ARPANET and Department of Defense 1969, and the World Wide Web developed at CERN byTim Berners-Lee in 1991) (Note, although the primary advancement in human communications is the Internet’s interactive potential, much of what was initially available were web-distributed mass media publications.)

Evaluating electronic mass media becomes a more complex process.  In addition value they provide based in the speed at which they can cross distances, separated from some explicit form of transportation, and their ability to accurately record human speech and motion, they also exhibit inherent limitations.  While an individual analysis of each of the particular media (music CD-Roms and videos, film, video and DVDs, etc) is beyond the scope that I can cover in this paper, the majority of electronic mass media use in the United States is radio and television. Both of these media are primarily used for commercial ventures that typically are designed to motivate consumers to buy products and aims at attracting the largest possible audience by creating content geared for the lest-common denominator.  Configured as passive media in which an audience member receives whatever content is sent, there are few opportunities for direct engagement with the producers, writers, actors, sponsors, etc. that make the program available. 

Over the last two decades, Media Literacy efforts have promoted the critical review of electronic media, particularly in the way they form identities and values. Here are nine questions to consider when analyzing media:

   1.What genre of program is this? Is it intended as a documentary?
   2.What is the producer’s purpose?
   3.How does the producer’s purpose shape the content?
   4.How are language, sound and images used to manipulate the message?
   5.What techniques are used to enhance the authenticity of the message?
   6.What techniques are used to enhance the authority of the message?
   7.How do different viewers interpret the same message differently?
   8.What techniques are used to involve or engage the viewer in the message?
   9.Who makes money from this message?

A quick survey of highlights of the Church’s use of radio, television, cable, and satellites is suggestive of powerful role electronic media has played spreading the good news and forming people in faith. The birth of the “Electronic Church” has been linked to 1921 when a Westinghouse engineer who sang in his church choir believed that the sounds of his faith community should be shared with the country.  With that decision, Calvary Episcopal Church’s Sunday Evening Prayer service became the first religious broadcast in America to send the Good News to anyone with a receiver from KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA. As moving pictures were added to sound, the mainline denominations experienced a “heyday” of television programming.  In the 1950’s, television networks worked with the National Council of Catholic Men, the Jewish Seminary of America and the Federation Council of Churches of Christ (now the NCCC) to produce “long-running and award winning programs such as ‘Lamp Unto My Feet’ (CBS), ‘Directions’ (ABC), ‘Frontiers of Faith’ (NBC) and ‘Look Up and Live’ (CBS).  Since 1980, cable distributions brings Mother Angelica and the Eternal World Television network into the home and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) moved with sight and sound into the satellite-distribution era in 1981 when they established the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA).  Their goals included the distribution video programming for internal church use as well as cable distribution to the homes.  About the same time, the Southern Baptist Conference established Baptist TelNet (BTN) and the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints began installing downlinks at congregational centers.  On June 6, 1987 Tony Verna produced and directs an hour-long, world-wide Prayer for World peace linking over 1.5 million people in 17 countries on 5 continents with 24 satellites and 30 transponders. While statistics are not readily available to show a direct correlation between religious electronic media productions and better educated or increasing numbers of Christians, churches continue to invest large amounts of financial and other resources for the production and distribution of audio and video programming. 

Churches who incorporate electronic mass media need to be cautious. When using the media that are partnered with commercial ventures, the Church’s message is impacted by the demands and requirements of a commodity-oriented environment.  Within a broadcast and cablecast arena, Televangelists need to maintain a particular level of viewership and funding in order to say on the air.  To do so, they have learned how to diagnose spiritual hungers, tailor their message to keep their audience and “sell” satisfaction through veiled financial appeals.  No matter how much they try to personalize their presentations, the electronic church has difficulty actually supporting its members. Still, they generally draw people away from physical communities that probably could.  Within this mix, cultural values of consumption and contentment are typically protected and overpower any expression of Christian perspectives. 

D. Interactive Age

The fourth Era in Human Communications is still quite young and only recently being recognized.  With the creation of digital technology and a language that can convert any data, voice and video into a series of 0s and 1s, the Age of Interactivity dawned. Based on the telephone, there is common agreement that interactive audio was initiated 1876 with Graham Bell’s telephone; however, the start of multi-media delivery (voice, video and data) must be tied with the development of the computer. Some choose to ground its evolution in 1936 with the development of the first mechanical calculator while others claim the 1940s because the first programmable computer, MARK I, and first all-electronic computer, ENIAC, were built in 1944 and 1942-46 respectively. If the Interactive Age is defined more by the size of the group that could actually interact, the catalyst must be tied to the emergence of the Internet. This could be tied to the group that began researching what became the Internet [the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established in 1957 within the Department of Defense (DoD)], the first actual connection between humans and their computers (1964) or the establishment of the world wide web (1991). Regardless of the date, what is significant about this new era is the media’s ability to provide multi-directional sending and receiving of “voice, video and data.”  No longer a source of passive reception, these new digital media enable the sender and receiver(s) to exchange roles, communicate one-to-one or one-to-many, in real time (synchronous) or delayed (asynchronous). 

While the Interactive Age is full of promise, it currently is bound by some significant limitations.  Access to such interactive media requires what many consider costly hardware and software along with a telephone or cable connection. As Ann reminded us, the digital divide can be cut based on a number of factors. Pippa Norris, the Associate Director of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy has published research on her website .  Digital Divide Institute is also chronicling efforts to give broadband access to everyone. Some of the other issues include privacy, virtual identities, cyber theft, disembodied presence, commercialism, pornography. 

Within the Roman Catholic Church, the Diocese was the first of many to go online in 1994. The following January 1995, when Archbishop Jacques Gaillot was abruptly notified of his appointment at an ancient and fictitious see, Partenia in Algeria, the Pope indirectly established the first virtual diocese. As a kind of virtual Bishop, Gaillot’s parishioners span the planet and are connected through his web site that has been active since 1996.  Gaillot is quoted in The New Yorker as saying, “[T]he primitive Church was a kind of Internet itself, which was one of the reasons it was so difficult for the Roman Empire to combat it. The early Christians understood that what was most important was not to claim physical power in a physical place but to establish a network of believers–to be online.” Since then, more and more parishes, dioceses, organizations and publishers have staked their virtual territory. Even the Pope can be seen and heard through RealAudio and Streaming video (  It is part of a continuing tradition.

Since the scribes, editors and redactors who first wrote and copied the Bible included additional information and instructions within the marginalia that continue to inform faithful interpretation, the Church has incorporated both passive and interactive methods and tools as part of its repertoire to spread the Good News and form people in faith. Generally the media forms and communicative functions have been in balance; new media technologies were appropriated as the Church faced new proclamatory and educational need. The dawn of the Electronic Mass Mediated and Interactive Ages hold promise for the Church is we can design activities well.


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