Will the iPad change the way the world thinks?

With the recent release of Apple’s latest brainwave the iPad I have begun to consider whether this means an overhaul of the way the world publishes and therefore the way we think. History would seem to indicate ….yes.

Throughout the ages society has been dominated by different modes of publishing; theorist Harold Innis’ has proposed that each medium creates their own monopoly on the knowledge of society1. This concept has been clearly defined by Balnaves, Donald and Shoesmith as ‘a theoretical term used to describe how knowledge gets controlled and the role of communication in that control’2. This philosophy can be demonstrated on a grand-scale through understanding broader concepts of publishing. Publishing throughout history can be divided into two distinct categories:
  • Time – based publishing which consist of clay tablets and stone monuments 3(visualise the Colosseum of ancient Rome, the Acropolis of ancient Greece and the great pyramids of ancient Egypt). The ideas on these monuments are considered to have substantial authority although, spatially they are unable to present their message over a vast community. Innis notes ‘materials that emphasise time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions’4.  
  • Space – based publishing consists of the more modern technologies namely telecommunications and paper5. This form of publishing is not considered to have as much authority but, is able to spread its message over a wider audience. According to Innis mediums ‘that emphasise space favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character’6.   


Modern civilizations are often credited with the capacity to embrace both these methods of publishing7.  

Although the broad definitions of publishing provide an indication of the different values embedded within the societies which encompass them, to further understand how different modes of publishing effect the values and cultures of the societies which embrace them or as phrased by Balnaves et al ‘a medium of communication automatically implies a bias in the cultural development of a civilization either towards an emphasis on space and political organization or towards an emphasis on time and religious organization’8. It is necessary to examine one mode of publishing in greater detail. 

One of the most fascinating modes of publishing the history of writing and consequently its impact on society will be further examined in this article. An initial understanding of writing and its impact on civilization is noted by Ong who states ‘more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness’9.  

Heiroglyphics in the British Museum

The first style of writing I have chosen to examine is an ideographic or picture – based method of writing known as hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphs were a form of writing embraced by the ancient Egyptians. There is considerable remaining archaeological evidence of hieroglyphs in the tombs of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs’. In order to grasp the impact of this style of writing on the culture of ancient Egyptian society it is easiest to focus on a single example, in this case hieroglyphs and religion. Under the rule of Pharaoh Amenhotep (1372 – 1354BC), Amenhotep chose to impose a single God, monotheism, with the creation of the God Akhenaton10. This attempt was rendered unsuccessful after the death of the Pharaoh due to a monopoly of knowledge within the society, only the priests knowing how to read and write, and the difficulty of presenting abstract concepts in picture form11. They were unable to really visually represent this creation by the Pharaoh and resorted to depicting him as ‘the sun’ despite already possessing a sun God12. Innis also notes that ‘monopoly over writing supported an emphasis on religion’13. From this small case study it is evident that ideographic societies were affected by their chosen mode of publication as it prevented them from circulating abstract ideas.

This is in contrast to the phonetic form of writing which remains an abstract concept itself. Due to the obscurity of the alphabet and its separation from solid ideas it has allowed for the development of abstract concepts14. When examining the phonetic alphabet in the same context as ideographic writing, namely its role in the development of religion, it becomes evident that the two different modes of publication led to two significantly different cultural practices. Both styles of writing exercising a monopoly of knowledge over each society. Significantly, this represents McLuhan’s theory that ‘each medium can change perception and human practices’15. The phonetic alphabet nurtured abstract thought, making it possible for abstract ideas to be clearly expressed. In the case of religion it allowed for the concept of one God who is all seeing and all powerful but, can not be visually depicted to exist in modern society16. As Levinson expresses the phonetic alphabet is capable of ‘representing the unrepresentable’17. Through the examination of both ideographic and phonetic writing it is clearly demonstrated that different modes of publishing affect the dominant culture of a civilization.

Innis’ theory that each civilization is different depending on the different methods of publication which they choose to embrace is further illustrated not only by how we choose to write but, the act of writing itself18. The decision to move from an oral society to a literate society again affects the way we think and the ideas which we create. When examining an oral society we may choose to focus on one in particular, for example that of Native Americans, whose culture is based on oral narration19. The oral recount of stories is used to retell the history of the nation as well as for didactic purposes for the younger generations20. This creates a publishing culture which nurtures a communal society, one which requires the active participation of the audience through listening and at times questioning or providing responses to the story teller21. It also requires a society based on memory, one which is able to retain the stories of its past as there is little written material to work with.

This is in contrast to a written society where all ideas are placed on paper. Arguments made by Socrates, as ancient Greece made the transition from an oral society to a literary society, propose that a written society would ‘destroy our “natural” memory’22. He also argued that writing was ‘unresponsive’23. You were unable to ask anything or debate with the final written word and similarly the document was ‘unable to defend itself’24 in the face of criticism. 

Inextricably linked to the shift from an oral culture to a literary culture was the invention of paper. The invention of paper again clearly demonstrates Innis’ argument that the dominant mode of publishing in a society has the capacity to affect both the culture and value systems embedded within the civilization25. The development from parchment to paper according to Innis led to different focuses within society; ‘the dominance of parchment in the West gave a bias towards religious organization that led to the introduction of paper with its bias towards political organization’26.

A printing press in the Technical Museum Vienna


Now we will leap from the advent of paper to the creation of the PRINTING PRESS. The printing press invented in the mid 1400s again shook up the world, what Eisenstein labelled a ‘communications revolution’27, taking us from a society where only the elite had access to information and were literate to one of mass production and literacy. The printing press made the written word cheaply available for everyone. The new technology increasing the amount of books available to the public but, decreasing the time required to produce them28. The printing press also allowed for the translation of novels to be sold to cultures on a global scale decreasing the special barriers of publication29. The new technology encouraged more people to publish their personal opinions; it was the advent of journalism and creative writing. The printing press revolutionised society.

Moving even closer to the present day we are able to examine electronic forms of publishing namely the internet which have further revolutionised the publishing of the modern world. Allowing anyone who wishes to have an opinion to present it straight away, it is free publishing cutting out the middle man. This culture has created a networked society; which Castells argues has modified the global social structure30.

An iPad


And now we come back to the 21st Century and the advent of the iPad. The iPad is an Apple produced product which resembles a small electronic tablet. It will allow publishers to create interactive content for its users; providing them both with reading and activities. This is not just affecting the way children read their first picture book but, also how student learn, with interactive text books for medical students. This new product therefore has the potential to change the normal practices of society through its mode of publication. The iPad upon and even prior to its release has been faced by both critics and worshippers. Among those hoping that the iPad does lead to a cultural revolution are the editors and employees of the dying traditional news media who view the iPad as their pontential saviour. This idea was inferred in a New York Times report which stated ‘publishers could possibly use these new mobile reading devices to hit the reset button and return in some form to their original business model: selling subscriptions, and supporting their articles with ads’31.  

Critics of the new technology fear the dominance of Apple over modern media, noting the companies new found dominance in music distribution they indicate that they may soon cover similar ground in the publishing business32. The dominance of Apple does not end there with Apple also dominating over the programming and hardware of its devices, leaving the competition behind33.

Reference List

1 H, Innis ‘Empire and Communications’, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, United States of America, 2007  

2 M, Balnaves SH, Donald and B Shoesmith, ‘Media theories & Approaches: A global perspective’, Palgrave Macmillan, United Kingdom, 2009, p 43

3 H, Innis, p26

4 H, Innis, p 27

5 H, Innis, p 26

6 H, Innis, p 27

7 H, Innis, p 27

8 M, Balnaves et al, p 80

9 W, Ong in D, Finkelstein and A, McCleery, ‘The book history reader’, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p 105

10 H, Innis 2007

11 H, Innis 2007

12 H, Innis 2007

13 H, Innis, p 45

14 W, Ong ‘Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the world’, Methuen, New York, 1982  

15 M, McLuhan in M, Balnaves et al, p 79

16 H, Innis 2007

17 P, Levinson ‘The soft edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution’, Routledge, London, 1997, p 17

18 H, Innis 2007

19 G, Haslam ‘American Oral Literature: Our Forgotten Heritage’, The English Journal, Volume 60 Number 6, September 1971, pp 709-723

20 G, Haslam 1971

21 G, Haslam 1971

22 W, Ong, p 106

23 W, Ong, p 106

24 W, Ong, p 106

25 H, Innis 2007

26 M, Balnaves et al, p 80

27 E, Eisenstein ‘The printing press as an agent of change: Complete in volume one’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, p 44

28 E, Eisenstein, p 44 – 45

29 M, Balnaves et al, p 80

30 M, Castells, ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: a theoretical blueprint’ from ‘Network Society’ 2005, pp 3-7 and 36 – 45

31 B, Stone ‘Looking to big-screen e-readers to help save the daily press’, New York Times, 4 May  2009

32 P, Kirn ‘How a great product can be bad news: Apple, iPad and the closed Mac’, <http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/01/27/how-a-great-product-can-be-bad-news-apple-ipad-and-the-closed-mac> , 27 January 2010

33 P, Kirn ‘How a great product can be bad news: Apple, iPad and the closed Mac’, <http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/01/27/how-a-great-product-can-be-bad-news-apple-ipad-and-the-closed-mac> , 27 January 2010


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