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History of Media

Technology And The "general Accident"

Even less convinced of the need for or efficacy of planning and action are the apocalyptic critics, foremost among them today Jean Baudrillard and, increasingly, Paul Virilio. Baudrillard traces media history in four phases: (1) it is the reflection of a profound reality; (2) it masks and denatures a profound reality; (3) it masks the absence of a profound reality; (4) it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6 and 1983, p. 11). In later writing Baudrillard, like Debord, suggests that, far from integration, we are doomed to the disintegration of media and world alike. Since Baudrillard concentrates only on the representational functions of the media, he is blind to their communicative roles and is determinedly centered on the industrialized world. Widely read when television was still the dominant medium, his work has been eclipsed in the rise of telecommunication toward hegemony among media in the early twenty-first century. More persuasive, perhaps because less nihilistic, Paul Virilio argues that the invention of railways was also the invention of the train wreck, that of automobiles of the car crash, and that the assimilation of all our media into a unified digital circulation leads inexorably to what he calls the rapidly approaching "general accident." Prefigured by the atom bomb and the information bomb, the genetic bomb is the latest cataclysm waiting to occur, all of them motivated by and dependent upon the mass mediation of speed and the concomitant abolition of time. The proximity of Virilio's conclusions to those of Innis is deceptive: where Innis saw the grounds for active engagement in the reconstruction of contemporary media, Virilio sees an unavoidable Armageddon.

Innis and McLuhan are not the only figures who ground contemporary media history. Unwelcome because of his Nazi heritage, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) is nonetheless the silent foundation of much continental media history. In his 1954 essay on "The Question Concerning Technology," technology figures on the one hand as an ordering of materials, an instrumental relation to the world that blocks our understanding of it. On the other hand, as a collection of devices that ensure survival, technology is ultimately in the service of humankind becoming the one species in whom the coming-to-being of the world can be realized.

Technology at its best thus serves its own ultimate overcoming (a conclusion distressingly close to Heidegger's ideological consorts in the Nazi Party). In Virilio's terms, the data crash is the necessary precondition for the self-realization of the world. In another essay, Heidegger prefigures Virilio's critique of the sedentarization of Western society, blaming television for "the abolition of every possible remoteness" (1971, p. 165). The industrialization of media in the form of standard delivery systems (an unchanging receiver frames all the changing content of television), unlimited replicability, and instantaneous broadcast appear to apocalyptics as signals of a collapse, of reality or humanity or both, into an undifferentiated and unchanging sameness. A similar thought undergirds some theories of cultural imperialism and globalization. The apparent novelty of the position is undermined by a reading of Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of Thamus's indignant critique of writing when the new technology was brought to him by Theuth: "What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality" (p. 184). Like Plato, Heidegger appears to believe in some form of original sin inhering in the medium he critiques. This thought is more nearly explicit in Heidegger's pupil Hans-Georg Gadamer, who notes, for example, that "Literary art can be understood only from the ontology of the work of art, and not from the aesthetic experiences that occur in the course of the reading" (p. 161). This holds true not only of a text that retains its integrity regardless of the form in which it is read or performed, but of the written medium from the beginning.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerHistory of Media - Periodization, Technology And The "general Accident", Historical And Technological Media, Ubiquitous Media, Current Studies In Media History