Masters of Media

Invention #1: Cuneiform + Hieroglyphics

Early writing forms were confusing + made reading and writing difficult. Individual symbols stood for syllables + entire words.

Early writing was pictographic — little abstraction + many symbols. Mastery of literacy took decades.

Invention #2:Writing

Speech is the universal way by which humans transmit experience. But there’s a problem with speech — it’s ephemeral. 

The spoken word fades instantly: before a word is fully pronounced it has already vanished forever.

Through writing, humans escaped the chains of memory. 

Recorded abstractions changed the very way that humans thought and behaved.

By making the spoken word permanent, writing changed the human condition.

Why was writing invented? 

Writing did not begin with the desire to record history or produce literature.  It began as a way to measure grain, count livestock, and organize and control the labor of humans. 

Accounting — not prose — led to writing.

Invention #3: Papyrus

Writing materials were expensive — too pricey for most people. 

Literacy was rare. Scribes were extremely influential. 

A single sheet of papyrus — the medium of everyday correspondence in Egypt — cost the equivalent of eight dollars per page in current terms. 

Invention #4: Phonetic Writing System

Phonetic writing evolved into Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and finally Greek.

People could pursue knowledge while keeping their thoughts to themselves.

“Writing exists only in a civilization, and a civilization cannot exist without writing.” – Ignaz Gelb

Invention #5: Latin Alphabet

Simplified scripts democratized learning — civilization would never be the same. For the first time, written language, civilization’s primary method of control was widely shared among the population.

That democracy developed in Greece was no coincidence. 

Invention #6: Blank Spaces Between Words

Yep, you read that right.

The simple things that we take for granted can make a big difference. 

Spaces improved the ease of both reading + composition, and the efficiency of copying + education. 

Invention #7: The Printing Press

The printing press amplified the power of literacy and sparked the Gutenberg Revolution around 1450.

By making books + pamphlets cheaper, the printing press changed literacy, religion, culture, and politics. 

For the first time, ordinary people could spread their opinions. 

Paper, printing and language made reading and writing easier than ever. Average people could copy information for the first time. 

Ordinary people could read the Bible in their own language and interpret it on their own — free from the Church. 

The Reformation and Enlightenment wouldn’t have happened without these shifts. The printing press was mightier than the Roman Catholic Church.

The ability to interpret the Bible was the ultimate source of power in the medieval West. But with the printing press, the church lost its stranglehold on literacy and power. The monopoly on scriptural interpretation had ended. 

So, what enabled the printing press?

Five separate strands:

  1. Written script
  2. Founding of Europe’s first great universities
  3. Industrialized paper manufacturing 
  4. Steel punches and counterpunches to manufacture the type molds
  5. Advances in mining technology + metallurgy 

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Invention #8: Telegraph

The Telegraph hinted at the fall of the tyranny of distance.

Information traversed the globe at swift speed. Communication times compressed.

News, which once traveled by boat or by horse, could travel by wire.

The 1st transcontinental line was completed in 1861.


Invention #9: Newspapers

What made newspapers possible in the 19th century?

  1. Cheap wood-pulp paper
  2. Steam driven high-speed presses
  3. Burgeoning literacy

Average people couldn’t compete with newspapers and their printing facilities.

As a result, the state could control the relatively small number of newspapers. Censorship served kings and monarchies.

A few people controlled the flow of information to the population at large.

Invention #10: Radio

Radio was easy to dominate.

Transmitters were expensive, and radio was a one-way medium.

No preceding media could reach so many people so instantaneously and with so little feedback in the opposite direction.

“Wars are not fought for territory, but for words. . . . Man’s deadliest weapon is language.” — Arthur Koestler

Radio is an inherently persuasive medium. 

Voice convinces better than the pen.

It rewards simplistic solutions to complex problems and weighted words to sound arguments.

Radio’s emotive power contributed to the rise of totalitarianism in the early 20th century. An Example: The Soviet Union

What fueled its collapse?

  1. Carbon paper
  2. Shortwave Radio
  3. Inexpensive copying

Written material was smuggled through Russia, published abroad, and re-broadcast over foreign radio.


Then it was re-transcribed and recopied by Russian listeners.

Soviet dissent was known as samizdat.

To conserve precious paper, typists used tiny fonts, single spacing, and narrow margins.

Paradoxically, uneven print and grammatical mistakes increased the appeal and legitimacy of samizdat.

Attractive books were less believable than ugly ones.

Invention #11: Television

TV is a hierarchical medium — like radio.

TV can reduce complex events into a single, instant, telling image. That’s why TV’s visual nature transformed politics.

Appearance became a critical factor. TV helped Kennedy beat Nixon.


Invention #12: Xerox

Copying went from a laborious process to a pleasant one.

For the first time, ordinary people could copy thousands of pages of written material and shaped three major events:

1) Pentagon Papers

2) War in Vietnam

3) Richard Nixon’s resignation

The takeaway: The words “politics” and “communication” are nearly synonymous.

Politics is communication applied in the service of power.

Only by understanding communications technologies, can you understand the ebb and flow of politics, of culture, and of the human condition itself. 

The medium is not merely the message, but the very page on which human history is written.

Source: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, William Bernstein