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Review of: How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
******** ASHCROFT ****** EJC/REC Vol. 5, No. 4, 1995 *******

Review of:

How Things Got Better:  Speech, Writing, Printing,
and Cultural Change by Henry J. Perkinson
Greenwood Press, 1995
ISBN 0-89789-431-6, 192 pp., $49.95

By:

Joseph Ashcroft
East Stroudsburg University


     Henry Perkinson believes that the various media humans
use to communicate play a major role in cultural change.  He
also believes that the story of the evolution of human
communication from speech to writing and eventually to print
has a happy ending--things got better.  Perkinson makes a
much better case in support of the first proposition than he
does for the second.

     The idea that different forms of human communication
encourage or discourage a variety of cultural attitudes,
behaviors, and organizations is certainly not a new idea.
Plato, in the Phaedrus, warned about the effects of writing
on Greek culture almost 2,500 years ago.  And Perkinson is
preceded in this century by writers such as Innis (1951),
McLuhan (1964), Eisenstein (1983), Ong (1981), and Postman
(1985), who have all agreed that there is a connection
between the form of media used by a culture and the
attitudes and practices of that culture.  Perkinson
recognizes his indebtedness to the work of these and many
other scholars who have explored this topic.  Perkinson's
primary contribution is that he organizes the presentation
of these ideas clearly and concisely.  Considering its
relatively short length, the book provides a surprisingly
thorough analysis of the effects of speech, writing, and
print on culture.  It would be an excellent textbook in any
course that is designed to introduce students to the
relationship between communication technology and social
change.

     However, Perkinson frames his presentation around the
idea that each of these developments in human communication
technology made things better.  Here, Perkinson is far less
effective, since his framing is deeply rooted in a
Eurocentric perspective.  In a section where he discusses
the connection between print and the age of discovery,
Perkinson details how print encouraged wider dissemination
of more accurate maps, which in turn encouraged greater
exploration of other continents by the Europeans.  The
greater geographical exploration led to the discoveries of
greater mineral riches.  I agree with Perkinson that print
was an important factor in the expansion of European
exploration.  And this expansion may have made things better
for some Europeans.  But it hardly made things better for
the Aztecs or the Mayans.  In another section, Perkinson
shows how print played a crucial role in the development of
capitalism.  However, his rosy conclusion that captialism
made things better is colored by his own belief in the value
of capitalism.  He writes,

     "So, with the coming of the printing press, the
     economic arrangements got better.  Printing
     provoked the worldwide expansion of trade and the
     adoption of rational methods of accounting, and it
     destroyed both the monopoly of the guilds and the
     restraints imposed by the Church on economic
     growth.  The printing press created the
     markets--the labor market, the land market, the
     financial market--and it greatly expanded the
     commodity market.  The printing press created
     capitalism--a free market economy that brought
     undreamed-of wealth to the nations of the West."
     (p. 142).

     I can agree that almost any type of change within a
culture can benefit some individuals within that culture.
But Perkinson is asserting more universalized benefits from
the changes he explores, and I just do not believe he has
effectively made his case.  Ironically, though, this flaw
improves its potential as a textbook, since it provides an
important issue that can be the subject of class
discussions.

     Therefore, I strongly endorse _How Things Got Better_
as a textbook for undergraduate media theory or media
history classes.  It does an excellent job of summarizing
how speech, writing, and print affected cultural change.
But my endorsement is based in part on my belief that it
will also provide a clear example of the limits of
Eurocentric thinking.

     The book can be purchased from Greenwood Publishing
group by contacting them at:

Grenwood Publishing Group
88 Post Road West
Westport, Connecticut USA  06881

                         References

Eisenstein, E. (1983).  The printing revolution in early
    modern Europe.  London:  Cambridge University Press.

Innis, H. (1951).  The bias of communication.  Toronto:
    University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964).  Understanding media.  New York:  McGraw
    Hill.

Ong, W. (1981).  Orality and literacy.  New York:  Metheun.

Postman, N. (1985).  Amusing ourselves to death.  New York:
    Viking.
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