Newsletter of the Mercurians, in the Society for the History of Technology

Volume 10 No. 1, November 1997

Mercurial Matters

1998 in Baltimore

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Media and Revolution

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Book Reviews

Media and Revolution: Comparative Perspectives
Jeremy D. Popkin, ed. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1995), pp. 246, viii, index, illustrations.

Everybody knows that the 1989 student revolution in China and the 1991 coup overthrow of the Soviet Union demonstrated the unprecedented power of modern media, right? Not quite. As this very useful corrective proves, we've been there and done that. Ranging from the pamphlets of the English Civil War (Michael Mendle), through incendiary antislavery literature (Thomas C. Leonard), to the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia (Owen W. Johnson), this collection explores the role of media in previous revolutions.

The common theme is that "revolutionary crises coincide with sudden changes in the media system of the society" as new types of media appear or gain prominence, outside groups gain access to or control of existing media, or the forms of media change (p. 4). Recipients are subjected to an unsettled media environment as the variety of signals increases and the signal-to-noise ratio decreases. Changes in the media environment accompany the breakdown of state authority as revolutionaries push their ideas into an increasingly chaotic situation.

Indeed, advocates of change are usually the first to take advantage of new ways of communicating, as Pierre Retat's study of the French Revolution demonstrates. It was not by chance that many revolutionaries in other situations spent part of their lives as journalists. Given the opportunity and motives for change, new publications appear. For instance, during ten brief months in 1938 of freedom in Wuhan, China, journals grew from more than 30 to more than 200, and newspapers from 23 to 44 (Stephen R. MacKinnon).

After the revolution, what happens? The new state tries to achieve closure by wrapping itself in both new and traditional symbols and by imposing its own version of the world through the media available to it. The process is similar, whether in late 17th-century England (Tim Harris) or the first decade of the Soviet Union (Jeffrey Brooks).

Use of new technologies or tactics rarely remains a monopoly for long. Pat Robertson's imaginative use of videotapes in his 1988 presidential campaign was standard practice for most candidates in 1992, as I observed in studying Texas politics and the fax revolution.

While some of the articles here tackle the additional question of how to "read" media content, especially public events, a paper dedicated to this theme would have added to the collection's value. It seems a shame that only a footnote describes how Americans gain a very different picture than others of modern events by relying overly on CNN coverage. Hint: if demonstrators outside the United States carry banners in English, you know a made-for-TV event is in progress.

The papers of this 1992 conference at the University of Kentucky cover a wide range of media: pamphlets, public rituals, radio, newspapers, books, and television. They convey a sense of the energy unleashed by the excitement of revolutionary times and the eagerness and ability of revolutionaries to promote their causes by imaginative and effective manipulation and creation of communications. While the articles are not as comparative as the editor had wanted, nonetheless, they represent a major contribution to understanding better the great role of communications in revolutionary times. No one should comment on the revolutionary aspects of modern communications technologies without first understanding their roles in earlier revolutions.

Jonathan Coopersmith is a historian of technology teaching at Texas A&M University. He recently published "Texas Politics and the Fax Revolution," Information Systems Research 7, no. 1 (March 1996): 37-51.