A shifting media ecology: What the age of Luther can teach us
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A shifting media ecology: What the age of Luther can teach us

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Well before people even named them, Martin Luther unknowingly stepped into one of the great debates about new technologies through his writing in the 16th century. The content of Luther’s writing did not matter as much as the new technology itself, in this instance the printing press. Though Luther continued his normal practice of academic writing, he did not consider (except in an immediate strategic sense) and most likely could not fully consider the extensions of his writing or the impact of that writing when he coupled it with new technology.

Luther’s situation shows what can happen when new technologies enter into existing worlds. Drawing on a biological metaphor, the media ecology approach to communication study argues that we must see communication and communication technologies both as constituting an ecosystem and as existing within a larger cultural ecosystem. The communication ecosystem consists of not only the technologies themselves, but of the previously established habits and practices of communication, the economics of communication, the ideas circulating in society through communication, and even who can communicate with whom in society. Seeing Luther in a media ecology raises questions not only about the spread of ideas but also about the role of the means of production and the development of society itself through its communication choices.

By their very nature new technologies raise questions that previous generations had not considered. Each generation develops its own tools, ethical practices, and means of assessment for communication − basically for an ecosystem that has reached equilibrium. However the older tools, practices, and means may not fit when the new arrives. Not surprisingly, people have trouble predicting what might happen and even more trouble faced with evaluating something new that presents a great number of affordances, that is, sets of possibilities and opportunities to do many different things.

Because a given culture may choose only a few of those things, students of media find it even harder to predict the future. Much of what we take for granted in our use of communication technology today results from choices that past users made, the structures they established, and the media ecology equilibrium they reached. So, when we find ourselves in a period of rapidly changing technological development, we find it easier to understand what might happen based on what occurred in similar instances in the past.

So, some 500 years after Martin Luther, we can consider some of the challenges that new media present to us today by looking at Luther’s experience in the new media of his day. Even as we do this, we should keep in mind that this same reflection could take as a starting point any time in which cultures encounter something new. The study of communication technology offers several key periods: the 16th century (the time after the spread of the printing press), the 19th century (with the inventions of the telegraph and telephone) and the 20th century (both early, with broadcast technology, and late, with digital technologies).

Four challenges

The experience of Martin Luther illustrates four challenges arising from communication in a changing era, each involving a media ecology of technology, cultural practices, and ultimately ethics. Thinking in terms of an ecosystem of communication leads us to understand how a system in equilibrium becomes unbalanced with the introduction of a new technology, or a new source of information, or a new legal structure of information − these events and others radically open the communication system to largely unpredictable developments.

The first challenge arises from new technology and its disruption of the media ecology system. As already noted, the new technology of Luther’s day was the printing press. And, in Luther’s time the equilibrium included church polity, the relation of Church and State, the role and practices of the university, the theological understandings of the Scriptures, the translation of the Scriptures, the manuscript tradition, an understanding of what it meant to be a Christian, the local town markets, and a host of other things. As befitted a university teacher, Luther himself used any number of methods of expression, from the spoken word with its echoes of orality in the use of slogans (“sola scriptura”), academic debates, university lectures, and written texts.

Luther, already known as a well-selling devotional writer and teacher, had a strong reputation in the book trade and a popularity among various audiences. Luther’s theological writings became bestsellers of his day because Luther made use of the printing press or, perhaps better, the booksellers and the printers made use of Luther’s writings to advance their own sales of materials. When he published his 95 theses as a way to engage other theologians in debate and to challenge the local church authorities, the booksellers saw another publishing opportunity.

Luther may have had the ideas, but the booksellers and printers spread those ideas for their profit. The fact that the booksellers seized on this work and popularized it around Germany may have surprised church officials, but from the perspective of a growing book trade, this made perfect sense. In effect, they popularized the writings far beyond what Luther would have expected. The booksellers most likely did not consider the norms of academic discourse, the depth of the religious ideas, the growth of faith, or any of the other larger consequences of the Reformation. Their motive had more to do with profit. The capital invested in the printing press and the return on their investment led the way. 

Therefore, in thinking about communicating in an age of new technologies we should consider the unintended consequence for the ecosystem. A new communication technology opens up an existing system to new developments and possibilities, which can include the participants (printers vs. copyists, readers vs. auditors in lecture halls, local nobility vs. church leaders, etc.), the legal structures (the development of copyright, for example), the financing, and so on. Each raises ethical concerns.

The second challenge to communication illustrated in Luther’s career has to do with public communication. Every era has its own set of publics for communication, that is, those people who would speak to one another, the topics about which they would speak, the circulation of ideas − in short, the audience. In the 16th century, these included academics, the church, the court, the towns, the guilds, etc. Each had its own “language” and specialization. The growth of the vernacular languages both contributes to and results from the rapid expansion of communication through the printing press.

Academic theology and, in fact all academic work, took place in Latin, as did government business, church practice, and what today we would call international trade. However, Luther, particularly in his devotional writings, already had a reputation as a German stylist. And so, his desire to have all the German people read the Scriptures in their own heart language led him to translate the Bible, both the old and the New Testament. From an academic perspective, the availability of corrected manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew led him to recognize the weaknesses of the Latin Vulgate translation. His creation of a catechism in German led to a new engagement with theological ideas among the laity. In undertaking both Bible and theology in German, Luther dramatically altered the equilibrium of the media ecology.

Ethical questions

Each of these audience issues connected to the vernacular languages raises its own ethical questions. For example, new translations call for a consideration of the intended readers of them. The English translations of the Scriptures during the time of Henry VIII illustrate the point in the debates between William Tyndale and Thomas More. More favoured specialized terms were brought into English for theologically-laden words because of the technical quality of the language (that is, the words carried a theological history with them) while Tyndale sought to use the more powerful English words or words that stood independently of a theological history. For example, More advocated “priest”, “church,” and “charity” where Tyndale used “elder,” “congregation,” and “love.” The words appealed to audiences in different ways: More focused on the church as guarantor of the Bible and Tyndale, taking the position of the Reformers, on the Lutheran sola scriptura,

In effect the use of the vernacular languages in the 16th century opened up technical discussions among theologians and translators to a much wider audience, an audience that lacked a certain knowledge and background to fully comprehend the debate. On the one hand, this offered a very good outcome, particularly in terms of personal growth and faith and the personal connection to the Scriptures. On the other hand, this led to increased controversy over interpretation and the use of the Scriptures by groups with vastly different motivations.

Luther himself experienced this kind of dismay during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524, a revolt fuelled by, among other things, particular interpretations of religion and of the Scriptures. Similarly, other reformers at Luther’s time advanced arguments that academic groups might have refuted, but that spread widely in the communication situation of the Reformation, as for example in the renewed appearance of iconoclasm in the West.

New audiences, then, illustrate another disruption of the equilibrium of the media ecology. The opening of theology, government, and business and the expansion of the audience move society closer to communication for all. At the same time, that very expansion raises questions about the end of communication and highlights the dangers of different groups vying for dominance of communication.

A new kind of rhetoric

The third issue arising in this time of communication transformation has to do with rhetoric and argumentation. The medieval educational system prepared scholars and clerks for public communication through “eloquentia”, dialectic, and rhetoric − largely oral methods that they adapted to the semi-oral worlds of the lecture hall and manuscript. However, a technology like the printing press that greatly expanded the audience and the ways in which people received communication necessitated a new kind of rhetoric. The rhetoric of the printed book (tone, arrangement of information on a page or in chapters, type face, etc.) took well over a century to develop. It took that long for people to best understand the form that worked in the absence of face-to-face debate, in the quiet reading of a book alone in one’s room, in the longevity of the printed word.

Many of the writings of Luther and his opponents read today can seem somewhat shocking to those accustomed to the modern and quite moderate tones of academic debate. Those early printed words have strong oral qualities, with echoes of the kinds of debate practices that we still hear in the British Parliament: cheering one’s allies, name-calling (with names that seem perfectly inappropriate for theological or scriptural debate), the equivalent of shouting down an opponent, calls for order, and so on. They also include a kind of style marked by a flow of words, one without the kind of concise argumentation we might expect in a written text. These differences illustrate how the printing press changed the ecosystem of argumentation, proof, and the presentation of knowledge.

Any new technology of communication, particularly one that introduces different techniques of expression challenges us to develop the most effective way of communicating within the world inscribed by its affordances. Again this illustrates that the media ecosystem consists not only of the tools but, in this instance, of how people should use the language, how they can frame arguments, how they determine what counts for proof and knowledge, and even how people should address one another − the rules of politeness and etiquette suited to the medium.

Fourth, the changing ecosystem fostered by new communication opportunities raises questions about authority and the nature of authority. Here, too, by considering the balanced ecosystem before the printing press, we can see the ways in which a new communication world changes this aspect of human society as well. Most clearly during Luther’s lifetime, European society experienced a shift from a hierarchical church and state authority (a church authority that controlled many of the means of communication) to a much more open communication system. Before the printing press, wide-spread sources of information largely consisted of sermons, letters circulated from the bishop, handwritten manuscripts, and religious and regal proclamations. Because communication existed in such a restricted world, those who had access to communication possessed a great deal of authority.

The access to communication, that is, the authority related to a person’s position, education, or ordination. Luther’s proposal of the priesthood of all believers in effect made not only a theological point but also a sociological point, and one reinforced by new communication means. Opening access to a world of communication changed the medieval world and the very nature of authority, that is to say, who had the authority to speak, write, and even read. The two go together: authority flows from the one who expresses himself or herself, but authority also resides in those who receive the message. The interaction reveals the bounds of authority. 

For any culture or society this raises ethical questions of how that society bestows authority on individuals and how the wider group recognizes that authority. One could list many different sources of authority, whether from academic, political, or religious sources or, as Max Weber does in his sociological studies of authority, from charisma, legal status, or tradition. Each correlates with communication practices and access to information. 

Clearly, the 16th century witnessed a dramatic cultural change that impinges on authority. Without trying to attribute all of the changes simply to the printing press, we can say that what occurs in the 16th century involves a shift in the equilibrium of the media ecology and more general social ecosystems. All of the different parts shift simultaneously and begin to influence one another: the printing press plays a role; the changing understanding of theology plays a role; the rising book trade plays a role; the personalities of the people thinking and writing play a role as do the rise of the vernaculars and a new learning; the new occupations of printer and bookseller (the new gatekeepers to knowledge) play a role. The time of Luther holds particular interest because so many things shifted simultaneously.

Today’s media ecology is unbalanced

In our own day analogous changes hold relevance for us. We too live in a time in which the media ecology has become unbalanced. New technologies have had systematic and systemic influences on every aspect of our living: the digital technologies − the Internet, social media, smart telephones, and other things—the whole range of our communication structures have affected the equilibrium of the media ecosystem. Just as in the time of Luther these technologies offer affordances for us to do things that we could not do before. They do not compel us to act or to communicate in particular ways nor do they compel us to change social norms; however, they give the opportunity for such changes to occur. Just as in that earlier era, we see a change in public communication in our day. Who has access to the technology? What can people communicate through that access? Who listens? What language do we use? Who constitutes the public? Who makes up the audience when “information demands to be free”, as the Internet libertarians hold?

In addition we find ourselves struggling with the appropriate rhetoric for the digital communication world. Some puzzle at the form and influence of 140 character messages on Twitter. Some take offense at the content that appears on Facebook or other Internet sources. Some wonder about the new elite that populates the world of reality television, YouTube videos, sports, or niche entertainment. We also recognize and struggle with the question of authority. Every established understanding of authority seems to face challenges, as has occurred in the political realm in recent elections across the world. Changes in authority linked to changes in communication practices appear in the rise of populist political movements and anti-globalization protests. People wonder about which sources of information and news deserve trust. Most likely the same applies just as much to religious communication and authority.

However, all is not bad. A media ecology out of equilibrium holds out many new possibilities. These new technologies offer access to communication to many people and groups who lacked a voice without them. As the ecosystem moves towards balance, people have opportunities to develop a new rhetoric, to understand authority in new ways, and to change existing structures. Past experience indicates that whenever the ecosystem of communication shifts, many other opportunities present themselves. Scholars may recognize these development in the past: Luther’s world does help us to identify key challenges. Unfortunately, scholars and others find it very difficult to predict how the ecosystem will rebalance itself. ν

Paul Soukup, S.J., (M. Div. Theol.; PhD)
serves as the head of the Communication Department, Santa Clara University, California, where he teaches courses in technology and communication, and does research on religious communication. He has explored the connections between communication and theology since 1982. His publications include Communication and Theology (1983); Christian Communication: A Bibliographical Survey (1989), Media, Culture, and Catholicism (1996), Mass Media and the Moral Imagination with Philip J. Rossi (1994), and Fidelity and Translation: Communicating the Bible in New Media with Robert Hodgson (1999). In addition, he and Thomas J. Farrell have edited four volumes of the collected works of Walter J. Ong, S.J., Faith and Contexts (1992-1999). Most recently, he has published a book of Biblical meditations on communication, Out of Eden: 7 Ways God Restores Blocked Communication (2006) and edited a collection of essays applying Ong’s thought, Of Ong & Media Ecology: Essays in Communication, Composition, and Literary Studies (2012).


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