In his text Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Anderson posits the argument that media contributed to a new consciousness of space, time, and social relatedness beginning in Europe in the 16th century.
Interestingly, media’s role in the massive paradigm shift that occurred in tandem with the Reformation did not simply influence the beginning of these great changes, but aided in the process of ushering in a new era in Europe as communication became more democratized in terms of general readership numbers, even if the controlling forces behind the media outlets themselves had distinct interests.
Although still surprisingly unregulated when compared to other forms of mass media—television, newspapers, and radio in particular—the internet presents a scenario that promises significant societal change based on societal, national, and small-group/community consciousness. This new mode of consciousness is entirely different as it is not based on the same basic concept of transmission of knowledge through media (passive consuming) but rather encourages active participation in the creation of new media outlets and strategies.
The internet has effectively achieved what no newspaper or other traditional source could—it is offering the possibility for objectivity. This objectivity, however, is not located in one place or source, it is rather based on the reader’s ability and desire to cull from numerous independent and non-capitalist sources needed information and synthesize it into a whole. Additionally, through the use of small messaging communities, this process of culling and sorting through massive amounts of material, ideas, and exchanges becomes easier and outside of the bias of traditional capitalist media for the most part. While remains of the “old guard” of print capitalism still persist and remain incredibly powerful (McCheseney, 2004) there is an increasing movement online to create more distinct, free communities.
The reason why the internet and digital technologies are so much different and provide compelling case studies when contemplating the future of mass communication in the coming decades is because they are taking a path that is opposite from that great change that occurred with the first wave of media’s creation of a new reality—instead of creating one distinct consciousness (which is akin to nationalism in Anderson’s terms) the internet and related digital technologies are producing an individual and small community-based consciousness that is more like the traditional village as opposed to a global city where everyone has equal say and all voices are said to be heard at once. When Spitulnik (1993) suggests that some of the digital products that were beginning to emerge when the article was written, including “electronic town halls” these had the ability to “supplant the ‘mass’ of mass media, making them [the technologies] more individual and interpersonal. While there is no value placed on this perception, after well over one decade with those same digital technologies which have been even further refined as communication tools it seems we are not much closer to answer of whether media in this more “personal” form is creating a new consciousness with its own distinct time, place, and in a broader metaphorical sense, “nationality”.
Before beginning this discussion on the nature of the created consciousness of space, time, and the sense of shared history and community that occurs when one participates (actively or passively) in the media, it is useful to revisit Anderson’s understanding of the initial events in Europe that sparked the beginning of the media revolution—a revolutionary period that still has not ended and will not until technological advancements cease. As Anderson suggests, the Reformation and associated decline of sacred, exclusive languages (Latin being the prime example) in favor of the vernacular were cornerstones of a larger movement that occurred in 16th century Europe. In addition to the decline of unified religious theories guiding people’s understanding of their identities in society, this breakdown in the concept of divine authority as the key to state structure and identity was further exacerbated by the fruits of imperialism—namely the realization that many other cultures and societies existed outside of the sphere of knowledge and outside of the context of one’s own political and social structure. Most importantly, the issue of language and the return to the common vernacular and the associated rise of what Anderson terms as “print-capitalism” is a paramount issue because the ability to discuss and reform national and societal identity following the collapse of traditional centers of religious power, authority, and knowledge could only occur under the banner of a common language. In short, Anderson’s central, provocative point is that language created the conditions that were necessary for print media to thrive and moreover, for someone to be able to guide and then profit from this medium. With all of these tumultuous shifts in society’s understanding and acceptance certain truisms that were falling apart one by one, there was another vastly important change that took place. This issue is what Anderson (1983) refers to as “a conception of temporality in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable, the origins of the world and of men essentially identical” (p. 36) and it is in this environment that ‘print capitalism’ emerged and almost instantly began to take hold.