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Timeless Tablets

Media today is more like it was in 51 BC than it was in 1951 AD, posits Tom Standage in Writing on the Wall, as reviewed by Henry Hitchings in The Wall Street Journal (10/19/13). Tom delineates three great media eras: “really old media, which lasted from 51 BC to 1833; old media which began when Benjamin Day … launched the cheap, ad-heavy and aggressively touted New York Sun; and new media, which dawned in 1993 with the release of the first popular web browser." His argument is that "the 160-year reign of old media was an anomaly."

Back in the first century BC, a "message being sent over a short distance was written on a wax tablet" that looked "very like an iPad," according to Tom. "Messages traveling longer distances were written on papyrus, which was lightweight and comparatively expensive. Delivery was often informal and therefore not secure – a concern that will seem familiar to today’s user of, say, an open Wi-Fi network." In the 16th century, "ambitious young men circulated handwritten copies of their poems … not unlike the self-promoting Twitter activities of latter-day wannabes."

The ensuing century saw the advent of "the coranto, an unattributed newsletter," that represented a "proliferation of new and untrustworthy news sources." Tom compares "the chaotic and adversarial media environment" of the period to the "fiercely partisan" nature of today’s blogosphere. In 1776, Thomas Paine’s "Common Sense," a "48-page pamphlet," spread rapidly, i.e., "it went viral." One difference between then and now is that, in the past, social networks were not commercial ventures. Another is that publications were not searchable. However, the "novelty of the digital age" may actually "be a rebirth."