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The term Media comes from a the plural of the Latin noun "medium," meaning 'in the midst' or 'an intervening space'. It has come into use in English to mean the material through or within which verbal or other means of communication are embodied (such as painting, wax cylinders, or DVD's) or transmitted (radio, television, or the Internet). In its broadest sense, it describes all forms of mass communication collectively.

Historical Overview

The earliest communicative media are embodied in systems of writing -- the first, pictographic, then later phonemic, and lastly alphabetic. The very first forms were generally hieratic, that is, specialized and understood only by a special class or caste of priests, and employed in religious or political inscriptions. A very early form of such media was the missive or "letter," a form of communication which was directed from one individual or others, opening with a salutation and closing with a name or signature. The library of Ashurbanipal, established in the 7th century BCE, included such letters, along with legal documents, contracts, and narratives ranging in length from simple folktales to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Writing -- embodied on stone, papyrus, clay or wax tablets, or parchment -- was certainly the first human form of media.

Later forms arose from technological developments: the Chinese wood-block book, the Gutenberg press using movable type, and later linotype and typesetting machines. It was not until the mid- to late-nineteenth century that many other forms of communications media arose: Facsimile or "Fax" transmission appeared in 1851 via Bakewell's "Electric Telegraph"; sound recording began in 1860 with the phonautograph and continued through Edison's phonograph in 1877; moving pictures commenced with Louis Augustin Le Prince's system in 1888; radio was first demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in 1897 and subsequently developed by Guglielmo Marconi; television was first demonstrated by John Logie Baird in 1925; digital communication via computer first became widespread in the late 1980's. All of these forms of media have since become interconnected, with some historians seeing what they call a convergence of media in devices such as the iPhone, which includes elements of the camera, telephone, videorecorder, computer terminal, and audio recorder.

In terms of the non-linguistic embodiments of human creativity, the history of media is as complex as the history of human material culture; there is scarcely any physical material which has not been employed in two-dimensional or plastic arts. Charcoal and stone (soapstone, marble, granite) were early artistic media, followed by metals (copper, bronze, iron) as these developed; the invention of paper and papyrus enabled art as well as writing. Paints and dyes of various compositions were applied to all manner of substrates, including wood, wax, papyrus, paper, and cloth. Later technologies such as wood engraving, copperplate, lithography, and eventually photolithography further extended the reach of artistic media, and in the case of photography embodied both "high art" and common everyday uses. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the term "new media" has been applied to artistic work which relies upon digital tools and platforms, employing tools such as Photoshop, FinalCutPro, and Illustrator, and distributed via the Internet and other electronic devices without, in many cases, ever taking a fixed physical form.