The Processes of Media Invention and Evolution

Davis Foulger
Visiting Associate Professor
Oswego State University

February 15, 2002


A human communication medium can be defined as a system that enables the creation and consumption (sending and receiving) of messages. There is currently no theoretical perspective within which the full range of interpersonal and mass media can be systematically compared. Patterns observed in studies of emerging new media suggest the possibility of such a perspective in a theory of media invention and evolution. This paper presents that perspective as five spheres of invention (mediators, characteristics, uses, effects, and practices) that interact in two evolutionary cycles (of genre and media). The relationship of these spheres of invention to existing communication theories is explored. A summary example demonstrates of the perspective at work in a hypothetical hammer-based medium. The resulting theory appears to satisfy Cappella's (1991) suggestion we can "remake the field" by replacing contexts with processes that operate within the scope of media. Indeed, the perspective and meta-theory presented appear to provide a framework within which we can usefully recombine a wide variety of existing communication theories.

How do media happen?

A human communication medium can be defined as a system that enables the creation and consumption (sending and receiving) of messages. While it is common to only apply the term medium to systems that enable mass communication, studies that attempt to compare media across contexts (interpersonal, group, organizational, and mass) frequently use the term medium to describe a broad array of communication systems. Over 100 different media are identified in the media taxonomies of Bretz (1971), Ciampa (1989), Foulger (1992), and Hoffman and Novak (1996). While these taxomomies (converged in Table 1) are not germane to this paper, the wide range of distinct media is. Why do we have hundreds of media? How do media happen?

Propinquitous Interactive Media

Intimacy, Face-to-face Interaction, Social Dancing, Small Group Interaction, Brainstorming, Family Interaction, Participatory Games and Sports, Classroom discussion

Live Presentational Media

Speeches, Lectures, Town Meetings, Judicial Proceedings, Ritual Ceremonies, Legislative Assemblies, Mobs, Theatrical Performance, Bonfires, Political Rallies, Live Musical Performance, Sporting Events, Puppet Shows

Static Art Media

Cave Paintings, Bas Relief, Oil Paintings, Dioramas, Quilts, Pottery, Sculpture, Architecture, Animatons, Photographs, Filmstrips, Holographic Recordings, Signs, Billboards

Correspondence Media

Letters, Notes, Memos, Business Correspondence, Telewriting, Telegrams, Telex, Facsimile, Tape Letters, Personal Video, Recorded Telewriting, Electronic Mail

Publishing Media

Books, Daily Newspapers, Magazines, Video Recordings (Videotapes, DVD Video, etc.), Weekly Newspapers, Journals, Recordings (Records, CD's, Cassettes), Newsletters, Merchandise Packaging, On-line information, Online databases, Online services, Electronic Publications, Multimedia Documents (VideoText), Billboards, Direct Mail Advertising, Microforms

Telephonic Media

Telephone, Teleconferencing, Intercom, C.B. Radio, Ham Radio, Family Radio, Videophone, VideoConferencing, Internet Telephone (CU See Me), Instant Messenger

Dynamic Art Media

Silent Film, Motion Pictures, Film with Subtitles, Talking Animatons, Lightboards

Broadcast Media

Broadcast Television, Cable Television, Satellite TV, Digital TV, Radio, Talk Radio

Interactive Mass Media

Hypermedia, Video Hypermedia, Computer Conferencing (Newsgroups, ListServes), Cooperative Composition, Voice Mail, Electronic Bulletin Boards, Streaming Audio and Video, Voice-into-text concurrent interaction, Virtual Reality, Interactive Television

Table 1: Over 100 Human Communication Media (Systems that Enable Human Communication). These media are organized into nine general categories that are suggested by the typologies of Bretz (1971), Ciampa (1989), Foulger (1992), and Hoffman and Novak (1996).

These are not questions we typically ask about media. Indeed, studies of mass media and other communication systems tend to treat the system itself as a backdrop. The medium exists, is used, and has best practices, audiences, and effects. The processes of mass media (for instance, decision making, social relationships, message production, influence, control, and power; see Cappella, 1991) tend to only be interesting as an art and body of practice that can be taught to aspiring journalists and broadcasters. Mass media theory generally focuses on effects (see Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 15). Whether the focus is on the relationship of orality and writing to society (Innis, 1950; McLuhan, 1964), two step flows (Lazarfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, 1948; Katz, 1957), the diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1995), audience cultiviation (Gerbner, 1986), agenda-setting (McCombs and Bell, 1996), uses and gratifications (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, 1974), dependency theory (Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur, 1976), or a critical theory (see Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 11), the issue is the effects of media rather than the media themselves.

The question of how media come to be has not been entirely ignored. Histories of media development, including those of Marvin (1990), Douglas (1997), Fischer (1994), Raymond (1996), Winston (1998), Fang (1997), and Standage (1999), provide important insights, but report after the fact for well established media, generally using secondary sources. Theories of the evolution of media can be built based on these sources, and at least one (Winston, 1998) does so. The real process of invention in media will not, however, be found in such secondary sources as memoirs, patents, published controversies, legislative enactments, judicial proceedings, archival statistical data, and other after the fact records. To find the the real process of invention, one must appeal to the actual conversations that occur when people are actually building, operating, and and using a medium for the first time.

This suggests a need for participant-observation studies of new media as they are created. Such studies are not unheard of. Kidder (1981) documents, as a observer, the creation of a new computer system from concept to delivery. Foulger (1990) observes the creation and evolution of an instance of a new medium, computer conferencing; over a period of nine years as it passed through all of the stages of the diffusion of innovation curve (Rogers, 1995). The latter study documents continuing patterns of evolution and change in several distinct, but interrelated spheres. This paper summarizes and extends the theoretical perspective that was initially described there, explores its relationship to existing communication theories, and provides a brief example of the theory at work in the form of a simple hammer-based medium.

Five Spheres of Invention

Media are invented and subsequently evolve in the intersection of five spheres of invention: mediators, characteristics, uses, effects, and practice. Each sphere is a distinct locus of invention, with changes in any sphere often initiating a need for invention in other spheres. These primary relationships between these spheres of invention (see Figure 1), form two cycles of change. The larger cycle of media is a primary engine of change during the early stages of media invention. The smaller cycle of genre, which focuses on the optimizing the uses of the medium to users needs, becomes the primary engine of change during the subsequent evolution of the medium. If we think of the spheres of invention as a system, the cycles summarize the primary feed forward and feedback relationships between the spheres, as depicted by the arrows in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A model of the spheres of invention in which media are evolved and their primary interrelationships. Note that there are two cycles embedded in this model. The first, labeled here as the cycle of media, documents the interrelationships of these spheres of invention for the overall medium. The second, labeled here as the cycle of genre, documents the interrelationships of the spheres as the medium is optiimized for specific uses.

The sphere of mediators encompasses the components from which media are built and the ways in which those components are organized. All media entail a system of mediators. Even face-to-face communication entails modalities (sight, sound, and perhaps others) and carriers (light and air). Other media may also entail some combination of routers, memory, interfaces, filters, envelopes, and amplifiers. For example, computer-base media generally entail all of these mediator types. The sphere of mediators can be treated as a system theory (Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 3) in which a selection of mediators are organized, often using cybernetic and information theory constructs, such that they enable communication.

The sphere of characteristics encompasses the essential qualities of a communications medium. A wide range of characteristics, including multiple measures of modality, message, production, performance, participant, and mediators, can be unambiguously described for any medium (author, in preparation). They often vary together so as to reduce to a much smaller number of meaningful dimensions, including bandwidth, dynamism, and interactiveness (Foulger, 1992; Hoffman and Novak, 1996). There is a commonplace notion of media characteristics associated with medium theory, system theory, the description of new media, and the generation of media typologies. The sphere of characteristics converts this commonplace notion to a theoretical perspective that asserts that a medium's characteristics enable a set of possible uses, that media with similar characteristics will compete for those uses, and that a new medium's prospects for success depend, to a large extent, on its differention from existing entrenched media (Foulger, 1992).

The sphere of uses encompasses the purposes to which a medium is actually applied. Two examples: paintings capture images for posterity, recreate feelings in the viewer, make political statements, and reshape the way we view the world; broadcast television includse advertising, entertainment, news dispersal, and education. The uses of media are a frequent element of theories of mass communication, starting with Lasswell's (1948) functions of communication, but most obvious in the uses-and-gratifications approach (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, 1974). They are also fundamental to at least some theories of message production (see Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 6), message reception and processing (chapter 7) and our use of the interpersonal context for relationship formation and maintenence, the management of face and boundaries, and conflict management (chapter 12). The sphere of uses is consistent with this range of interpersonal and mass media approaches to media use, but makes a somewhat broader set of claims starting with the claim (above) that characteristics enable uses. Second, all of the stakeholders associated with a medium (not just the audience) potentially make use of media to meet varying goals, with a medium's success invented in the intersection of those uses. Most important is the anchor that the sphere of uses provides for the cycle of genre. A medium's success and long term survival depends on the number of uses it can attract, with each distinct use having a unique relationship to the medium and a potentially distinctive set of effects on both media participants and the world at large.

The sphere of effects encompasses the actual impacts use of a medium has on those that are directly and indirectly associated with it. The orientation of this sphere it a medium's stakeholders makes it potentially inclusive not only of existing audience, cultural, and individual effects theories in mass communication (see Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 15), but of attribution and attitude theories (chapter 7) and critical theories (chapter 11). This integration of very different kinds of communication theory follows from the assumption that media effects are invented.. Media and attitude theories represent, respectively, functional and intentional views of those effects. Attribution theories present the mechanisms by which responsibility for effects is assessed. Critical theories contribute to the invention of effects. There are two principle variants of effect. "Application effects" follow from the successful, and generally intentional, use of a medium to achieve a particular goal, and are generally considered as desireable. "Outcome effects", whether intended or not, are those judged undesirable by users of the medium. One stakeholders application effect may very well be another's outcome effect. An effect that is hardly considered at one point in time may be extremely important at another. Advertizers might consider the ability of a medium to sell products (cigarettes, for instance) to large audiences a good thing. Critics of those products might consider such mass marketing capabilities a problem. This difference in the valuation of effect doesn't matter to the sphere of effects. What matters is that the effects are recognized and evaluated by stakeholders such that they engender pressure for change in the sphere of practice.

The sphere of practice encompass the patterns of behavior that participants within a medium adhere to when using a medium. A commonplace notion of practice, much of it tied to specific media (i.e. newspapers, television, radio, film, public speaking, face to face interaction, etc), guides instruction across the communication curriculum, which is also influenced by theories of message production practice (Littlejohn, 2002, chapters 4 and 5), social and cultural practice (chapters 8 and 9), and interpretive practice (chapter 10). Among the theories summarized in these chapters, only the ethnography of communication, with its focus on norms, forms, and codes, comes close to capturing the idea of the sphere of practice. There are two major variations associated with the sphere of practice:

Practices are the message of the medium that McLuhan (1964) refers to when he declares that "The Medium is the Message". All practices are, through their effects, relationship messages. They are the message structure that encapsulates message content, the relationships that tie messages together in particular ways, and the constraints on participant behavior that express the relationship of the medium to its stakeholders. While practices may be the visible message of the medium, they do not act in isolation. In media, there are no practices without effects; effects without uses; uses without characteristics; or characteristics without mediators. Practices close the loops that allow media to evolve continuously as a function of use, and genre to continue to evolve within established media. It is the intersection of these very different spheres of invention that make media possible; that allow us to transmit messages through a human communication system.

A Brief Illustration of the Processes of Media Invention and Evolution

Let us consider the normal operation and interaction of these spheres of invention by imagining a simple but practical medium built around hammers (which really are used as mediators in at least some media (most notably instrumental music systems involving pianos and/or percussion). Operating in the sphere of :

Our medium is, at this point, fully functional. We been through the cycle of genre twice, creating rules and generic practices in the process, and we're headed through the cycle of media for the second time. If this is a practical medium, we will travel through these cycles many times as we deal with the problems of children using hammers (solved by creating lightweight toy hammers), the opportunities of creating artificial hollow trees (drums), the evolution of new uses (music), new effects (sleeping with people drumming day and night), new practices (elaborated drum languages, drum language education, drum-related roles), new mediators (professional drummers), and even new media (drum chains that enable messages to travel very long distances).


These processes of media invention and evolution form a theory of theories that integrate a variety of theoretical approaches into a unified whole. Each sphere of invention, intersection of spheres, and cycle of innovation represents a very different theoretical space in which different kinds of theory and communication research methods apply. As a field, communication is encompasses a wide range of very different and largely unintegrated theories and methods. Context-based gaps in the field like the one between mass media and interpersonal communication have been equated to those of "two sovereign nations," with "different purposes, different boundaries", "different methods", and "different theoretical orientations" (Berger and Chaffee, 1988), causing at least some to doubt that the field can ever be united by a common theory of communication (Craig, 1999).

The theory of media invention and evolution presented here by no means unites communication theory into a single common framework. It does, however, provide something more than the kind of metamodel that Craig calls for. The spheres of invention and the larger cycles of media evolution through which they interact provide a substrate that may satisfy Cappella's 1991 suggestion we can "remake the field by altering the organizational format", replacing contexts with processes that operate within the scope of media. This perspective does exactly that. The result does not integrate all of communication theory. Indeed, following the metamodel of Figure 2, it explicates only a small part of the overall process by which people create and consume messages.

Regardless of such value, it remains that the perspective and meta-theory presented here provides a framework in which we can consider a variety of existing communication theories in combination. We can, for instance, imagine enrichment of genre theory with a uses and gratifications approach and vice versa or use conversation analysis to inform changes in systems. We can describe the process within which the medium becomes the message, and within which we can understand not only "how media happen", but why there can be a need for many of them.

Figure 2: A metamodel of the communication process.


A very large thank you to Joan Dyer, whose expert editorial assistance allowed this paper to actually meet the six page limit imposed by the Rhetoric and Communication Theory division of NCA this year. This was a hard paper to bring in at six single spaced pages.