Communication Theory: Media, Technology, Society


David Holmes

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    For Elena

    List of Tables and Figures

    • 1.1 The historical distinction between the first and second media age 10
    • 3.1 Digitalization as the basis of convergence, wider bandwidth and multi-media (the ability to combine image, sound and text) 66
    • 3.2 Features and types of hot and cool mediums 71
    • 4.1 The broadcast event 105
    • 4.2 Medium theory as applied to network and (retrospectively) to broadcast communication 119
    • 5.1 Transmission and ritual perspectives compared 135
    • 5.2 John B. Thompson's instrumental/mediation paradigm 137
    • 5.3 Broadcast and network as forms of communicative integration 149
    • 3.1 Transmission model: high integration/low reciprocity 53
    • 5.1 Ritual model: high integration/high reciprocity 147


    A theory of communication must be developed in the realm of abstraction. Given that physics has taken this step in the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, abstraction should not be in itself an objection.

    N. Luhmann, Art as a Social System, trans. Eva M. Knodt, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 12

    What follows is an interdisciplinary communication theory book which sets out the implications of new communications technologies for media studies and the sociology of communication.

    The cluster of texts which came out over the last decade dealing with computer-mediated communication (CMC), virtual reality and cyberspace has significantly established new theoretical domains of research which have been accepted across a range of disciplines. The current book proposes to integrate this literature in outline and summary form into the corpus of communication studies. In doing so it explores the relationship between media, technology and society. How do media, in their various forms, extend the social, reproduce the social, or substitute for other aspects of social life?

    Most books dealing with communication and media studies invariably address traditional concerns of content, representation, semiotics and ideology. Whilst including an appreciation of these approaches, the current book makes a contribution to theoretical analysis of media and communications by charting how the emergence of new post-broadcast and interactive forms of communication has provided additional domains of study for communication theory, renovated the older domain of broadcast, and suggested fresh ways of studying these older media.

    In doing so, this book advances a critique of the ‘second media age’ thesis, which, I argue, has become something of an orthodoxy in much recent literature. It rejects the historical proposition that a second media age of new media, exemplified by the Internet, has overtaken or converged with an older age of broadcast media. Yet at the same time, the value of analytically distinguishing between the most significant architecture that is attributed to the first media age–broadcast–and that which is attributed to the second media age–interactive networks–is upheld. The basic dualism between broadcast and interactivity structures the main themes of the book. To the extent that individuals in media societies experience changes in the means of communication as a ‘second media age’, we are compelled to re-examine the postulated ‘first media age’ in terms of medium or network form rather than simply content or ‘text’. The sense in which this distinction is made should not be confused with questions of form versus the content of narrative, where content is what a text says, and the form is how it says it. Rather, a non-textual distinction is being made here. In doing so, a sociological appreciation of broadcast can be arrived at rather than a media studies or cultural studies perspective, which is invariably grounded exclusively in either behaviourist or linguistically centred approaches to analysis. However, insofar as this book is ‘sociological’, sociology is not being opposed to communication and media studies; on the contrary, a central argument of the book is that emergence of new communication environments has more or less forced traditional media and communication studies to be sociological. For this reason the current volume is very interdisciplinary (between communication, media and sociology), but this has less to do with the perspective adopted than with changes in how media are experienced.

    These recent changes in media infrastructure have necessitated a shift in the order in which communication theory is treated. For example, information theory, which often prefigures semiotic analysis of media, is introduced in the current textbook as instructive for the second media age, where it more appropriately belongs with analyses of the Internet. In fact, in seeing just how relevant information theory is to CMC rather than broadcast, it is surprising how significantly it came to figure in studies of broadcast in the first place. At the same time, the book tries to incorporate most of the traditions of twentieth-century communication theory in order to locate their relevance to studying the sociological complexities of contemporary convergent communications.

    Through this argument the distinction between medium and content, media and messages, is persistently returned to. On the scaffold of these distinctions the book also presents a central argument about the difference between communicative interaction and integration. With the aid of recently emerging ‘ritual’ models of communication it is possible to understand how the technical modes of association manifested in broadcast and interactive communication networks are constitutive of their own modes of integration. Thus it is possible to identify media-constituted communities in broadcast communities and so-called ‘virtual communities’, which is to argue that such networks do not so much ‘mediate’ interaction, as facilitate modes or levels of integration to which correspond specific qualities of attachment and association. It is also to argue that media-constituted communities aren't merely a continuation of older face-to-face or geographic communities by technical means (the mediation argument) but are rather constitutive of their own properties and dynamics. Of course, such ‘levels’ of integration are not isolated but co-exist, in ways which are outlined in successive chapters (particularly Chapters 4 and 5). A third major theme that is explored is the urban and economic context of media-constituted communities, the way in which dependence on technical-communicative systems facilitates expanded commodification and rationalization of cultural life: spheres which could never have been so influenced before the emergence of these systems.

    It is not only the second media age text which is to be reappraised in developing the book's themes but also some classical texts on the sociological dynamics of broadcast as well as key readers pertaining to frameworks of ‘media studies’. Where this book differs from ‘media studies’ texts is in integrating the significance of ‘cybersociety’ into the general corpus of communication theory. It does so by way of a critique of the second media age orthodoxy which imagines a new era that is derived from yet another progress-driven ‘communications revolution’. At the same time, the discourses of ‘telecommunications convergence’ are critically assessed for overstating a technologically reductive distinction between ‘broadcast’ and ‘interactivity’ in order that they can be portrayed as undergoing ‘convergence’, again at a solely technological level.

    To turn to the chapter composition of the book: the introduction establishes the rationale guiding the organization of the book: the contrast between broadcast and network forms of communication. The predominance of semiotic accounts of media is criticized as unwarranted, distracting attention from the techno-social dimensions of media environments. At the same time, a linear model of progression from a first to a second media age is found to be too simplistic to address the complexity of contemporary media formations. The linear model is premised largely on an interaction approach to media culture, which in this chapter is counterposed to the more fruitful analyses that are made possible by ‘integration’ models. A variant of the linear second media age perspective is the ‘convergence’ thesis, which presupposes two media forms (of broadcast and interactivity) not historically, but technologically. These themes, of first versus second media age, of a multiplicity of form versus content, of ‘convergence’ as a product of medium dichotomization, of interaction versus integration, are announced as guiding the development of the whole volume.

    Chapters 2 and 3 are stand-alone expositions of theories of ‘broadcast communication’ and ‘network communication’, respectively. These chapters introduce key theoretical perspectives that are relevant to understanding broadcast and network communication. In addition, an historical and empirical discussion of broadcast in the context of urbanization and the rise of industrial society is presented, whilst in Chapter 3 the major innovations which underlie the second media age thesis are considered. Chapter 2 reproduces much of the ‘classical’ literature on media (e.g. theories of ideology) whilst also recasting it within the macro-framework of the techno-social medium approach (e.g. Althusser's often difficult theory of ‘interpellation’ and ‘ideology-in-general’ is re-explained as an effect of the structure of broadcast. Chapter 3 attempts to formalize the still very young perspectives on cybersociety and proposes to give them a sense of definition as a way of ordering the current burgeoning literature. In doing so, it identifies a ‘second media age’ perspective, a CMC perspective, convergence perspectives and the reclamation of older perspectives (McLuhan, Baudrillard) whose relevance to cyberculture is arguably greater than it is to media culture.

    Chapter 4 considers the interrelation between broadcast and network mediums1, and argues that they are quite distinct in their social implications but are also parasitic on each other. In this light, what is called ‘convergence’ is really an outcome, rather than a cause, of such parasitism, a consequence which is mistakenly seen to be only working at the level of technical causation, or predestined historical telos. But this distinctively broader meaning of convergence can only be arrived at if correspondingly broader meanings of network and broadcast are deployed, to spheres not confined to media and communications. In the context of such criticism, media technologies, whether they be broadcast or interactive, increasingly reveal themselves as urban technologies, which are constantly converging with the logics internal to other urban technologies (the shopping mall, the freeway). For example, the argument that virtual communities restore the loss of community that is said to result from the one-dimensionality of the culture industry does not contrast virtual and ‘physical’ communities, which can be done by looking at the dialectic between media culture and urban culture. Raymond Williams’ under-regarded concept of ‘mobile privatization’ is explored as a departure point for the way in which media extend social relations on the basis of private spatial logics.

    Finally, the economic complementarity of broadcast and network mediums is established. Life on the screen is one in which individuals are, if they so choose, able to live a culture of communication without the spectacle and advertising fetishes of broadcast. However, in an abstract world of communicative association this new mode of ‘communication as culture’ itself provides a market for communication products, both hardware and software, that is growing on a scale which is rapidly catching up with the political economy of broadcast.

    Chapter 5, ‘Interaction versus Integration’, critiques various models of interaction (instrumental views of communication, transmission views, ‘mediation’ views) as not being able to adequately address the socializing and socially constituting qualities of various media and communication mediums. In doing so it turns its attention toward the promising body of theory which can be gathered under the heading of ‘ritual communication’. This comprises works such as James Carey's Communication as Culture and is informed by anthropological perspectives and New Media theory. An argument is made for the need to develop an understanding of ‘levels’ of ritual communication: face-to-face, mediated and technically extended. The advance that John B. Thompson makes in this regard in The Media and Modernity is a useful stepping stone, but one that is based on interaction rather than ‘integration’. Integration formulations (Meyrowitz, Calhoun, Giddens) are then explored in order to demonstrate the shortfalls of the interaction model as well as to sketch a model which can begin to attend to the complexity of both broadcast and network forms of communication processes.

    Chapter 6, on telecommunity, appraises the significance of the concept of community in media culture in two ways. Firstly, how do ‘communities’ arise that are said to be constituted entirely by technical mediums? Secondly, why is it only recently, after over a hundred years, that there has been a radical renewal of thinking of community? With regard to the first question, the idea of a virtual community is explored, but in relation to the much neglected idea of broadcast communities, which, if anything, offer more powerful forms of integration than do their cyberspace counterparts. Whereas in broadcast communities there is little or no interaction with others in embodied or quasi-embodied form, there is a high concentration of identification and the constitution of community by way of extended charismatic affect. Thus, both kinds of community can be characterized as virtual in the way in which they privilege relations with media and mediated association.

    In its emphasis on the priority of techno-social mediums over content, the volume draws on the recent wave of publications that have dealt with the Internet and communication theory. At the same time it attempts to chart the relationship between traditional and new media without exaggerating the impact of the latter. Not only does broadcast remain central to modern media culture, but it makes possible, in co-dependent ways, the social conditions which underpin cyberculture, from its first steps to its last.


    Whilst the term ‘media’ might normally be considered the plural of medium, in this book I make the distinction between media and mediums which is not restricted to a singular/plural distinction. In using ‘mediums’ I am trying to retain a strong sense of media as environments, rather than as either ‘technologies’ or institutions. Denoting ‘mediums’ as ‘media environments’ or ‘media architectures’ facilitates insights drawn from medium theory which cannot be served by the term ‘media’.


    The analysis presented in this book has emerged from almost ten years of teaching and researching sociology of media. I have been fortunate to present my research across sociology and communications forums, and have benefitted from the challenges of organizing my ideas for classrooms of inquiring minds. I am grateful to the Humanities Research Program at the University of New South Wales for providing assistance in the middle phase of writing, as well as colleagues both there and at Monash for ongoing conversation, encouragement and thoughtfulness. In particular, I would like to thank Paul Jones and Ned Rossiter for rewarding conversations around themes and figures central to the book. For assistance with some research tasks, thanks are due to Aaron Cross and Olivia Harvey. With production I would like to Fabienne Pedroletti at Sage Publications and in Melbourne, Andrew Padgett, who has been invaluable with the final productive phases. Finally, my gratitude to my partner Vasilka Pateras for her patience and love, and our daughter Elena, for being an aspiration.

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