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Richard Barbrook
media freedom
oral culture

Societies Without Media
part 2

There can be no modernity without the media; there can be no media without modernity. Because the media are so pervasive and omnipresent in our contemporary world, it is easy for us to forget that the media are a very recent invention. For the majority of our existence as a species, human beings have lived without any need for newspapers, radio or television. In nomadic tribes, peasant villages or small towns, human societies were organised around groups of extended families. Within their own little worlds, people lived their daily lives isolated from everyone but their immediate neighbours. Although people did move between different places, each human community developed its own specific hierarchies, myths, rituals and languages. Because the lives of nomads, peasants or town dwellers unfolded within limited geographical areas, people directly communicated with one another through words, music or images. In the immediate reality of the present, our ancestors needed either no tools or only the most rudimentary equipment for face-to-face discussions and live entertainment.

In this oral culture, the recording of events was hardly known. The history of families, communities or tribes would be recounted in highly romanticised versions by poets and storytellers. But, for the most part, the experience of past generations was passed on directly to young people through working alongside or listening to their elders. The skills of herders, peasants or artisans were never learnt from a textbook. Within these enclosed little worlds, politics was carried out at the level of the tribe, village or town. For most of history, human societies have been controlled by hierarchies derived from the extended family, with power vested in a single patriarch. However this tyranny was sometimes checked by the ordinary people. For example, in classical Athens or medieval Switzerland, the arbitrary authority of monarchs and priests was replaced by the agora, which was the public meeting of the male members of a community. Even in this restricted form, direct democracy was only made possible by the limited geographical area of classical Greek towns or medieval Swiss villages. Because every male citizen could meet in one place for face-to-face discussions, it was practical to have popular participation in political decision-making. Crucially, when all citizens attended the agora in person, there was no need for a mass media to report and comment on the political process.

While various kingdoms rose and fell, tribal, rural and urban societies continued largely unchanged. Sometimes, after being destroyed in a civil war or foreign invasion, an individual community would disappear. But, for the most part, the great events of history didn't intrude into the personal lives of ordinary people. Self-sufficient within their own communities, they could ignore the tumults of dynastic and religious disputes. However they couldn't escape from these hierarchies altogether. Both monarchs and priests lived off the systematic expropriation of part of the livestock, crops or money of the people through taxes, rents and tithes. In return, dynastic and religious leaders offered protection from earthly and divine threats to the community. For this task, they created a caste of loyal bureaucrats and priests, who could impose the same social and religious order across many different local communities. Unlike the mass of the population, these servants of the crown and the church needed to communicate across space and time. For their work, it was necessary to record and remember events in writing.

In the pre-modern world, most people couldn't even read and write. In addition, the holy book, religious commentaries and legal texts were often written in a sacred language which was incomprehensible to the mass of the population. By making legal and sacred knowledge inaccessible to ordinary people, monarchs and prelates asserted their claim to divine authority over many different local communities. In contrast to the public meetings of the agora, the conduct of public affairs was transformed into the private concern of kings and priests. Because monarchical and sacred power was derived from God, there could be no open discussion of the policies of the king by his subjects or matters of religious controversy by believers. Crucially, with the public excluded from political and religious debates, there was no need for the media within this divinely ordained order. For example, even propaganda praising royal decisions was condemned for undermining the power of the absolute monarchy by exposing the reasons for the arbitrary decisions of the king. Not surprisingly, when the first printing presses were developed, both monarchy and church were immediately hostile to the new technology. Frightened of the spread of knowledge outside the chosen few, kings and prelates restricted the ownership of printing presses to their most reliable followers and strictly censored the publications printed. Thus, from the beginning, the use of the media by ordinary people was vigorously resisted by those with political and religious power.

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