Cover image for Misunderstanding media
Misunderstanding media
Winston, Brian.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1986.
Physical Description:
xi, 419 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :

On Order



Popular writing about the media resounds with rhetoric of techno-glory or apocalypse. Brian Winston argues that this "information revolution" is an illusion, a consequence of deep misunderstandings about electronic media, their development, diffusion, and present forms. Technology does not determine in an absolute way the course of human history; humans do. But we cannot hope to come to terms with the future impact of communications technologies without a clear understanding of our immediate technological past.

With lively and iconoclastic style, Brian Winston explains the development and diffusion of four central technologies--telephones, television, computers, and satellites. On the basis of these historical accounts, he formulates a model of how communications technologies are introduced into society in such a way as to prevent their disruption of the status quo. He convincingly demonstrates that the radical potential of each new technology has been suppressed by its development for specific and narrowly defined applications. Powerful historical patterns emerge as Winston moves from one medium to the next in his compelling study. This provocative book demonstrates that technology in itself is not subversive: television cannot rot our brains or destroy our morals. But to the extent that we allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed by an imaginary information revolution, we relinquish our control over what could be if not liberating, at least very useful forms of communication.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Potential readers who think this is yet another literary critique on media content may be deflected by this book's title, for three of the services discussed are not, strictly speaking, ``media.'' Yet this is an important, if mistitled, study of the limited impact of communications on society, as seen through the histories of four key innovations: television, telephones, the computer, and satellite communications. Dean of the new school of communications at Pennsylvania State University, Winston has extensive prior media research experience in Britain. He has developed a careful theory-based thesis: society contains and restricts technologies that might radically redirect work and entertainment patterns, and it allows only evolutionary rather than revolutionary, change. Through careful case histories of the four technologies, Winston then demonstrates the truth of this thesis, concluding that the so-called information ``revolution'' is really nothing of the kind-that society has not changed so radically as many seem to think. This is no Luddite analysis; rather, it offers a carefully organized and clearly written assessment of how promises and predictions of dramatic change have not come to pass. Such cross-disciplinary assessments are not yet common, and the theory used here, supported by several clear diagrams, makes this a valuable work of reference and a balance to the more prevalent ``blue sky'' books extolling the virtues of these and other means of communications. Appropriate for undergraduate or graduate students in communication or those concerned with broader trends of technology in society.-C.H. Sterling, The George Washington University