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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Historical Dictionary of Media Usage


Nikolaus Wegmann

ANECDOTE: “We have big ideas,” says Newt Gingrich (Speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, and prominent member of the Republican party) while speaking at a struggling inner-city public school in Chicago, adding his voice to the debate about public education in America.1 He doesn’t propose to solve systemic educational issues through conventional means such as recruiting additional teachers or spearheading new reforms. Instead, Gingrich places his bets on this surprising proposal: every student in this school will receive $3.00 for every book he or she reads to the very end. Gingrich delivers his message with the certainty that everyone in the country – not just his Republican base, but the entire population of media users, i.e. nearly all Americans – agrees with him, because he is only saying what everyone already knows.

No money will be handed out for the reading of any particular important book, but simply for the reading of any one book. Yet this reading must be carried out “correctly.” Skimming, or mere page turning will not be rewarded. The student must read a book from the first page to the last. This signals a break with both the traditional idea that the educative value of a book resides in the meaning it contains, and also the related conception of the reading process as an extrication of important contents from a container that stores them. Gingrich’s preference for the book as an educative medium, on the contrary, is based not on its content but its technical characteristics and advantages. If these are used properly, they will produce positive effects on the reader, contributing to his or her education and development.

The meaning of the German word bilden (Middle High German: bilden, Old High German: bilidōn) is “to form, to give form, then also to represent, to emulate.”2 Grimm’s DEUTSCHE WÖRTERBUCH provides an extensive range of meanings that reveals a clear development: At first, bilden was used primarily within the context of skill in craftsmanship (the potter makes bowls).3 Then in the second half of the 18th Century, the word’s meaning expanded to encompass the genius of the artist who is able to give “life and soul…to dead matter.”4 The artist also became the model for an educable individual who gave himself a cultivated form through an all-encompassing exchange between his internal and external worlds: “the poet and man in general give form to nature and art, the world gives form to him and he again gives form to the world.”5 In its pedagogical and idealistic meaning, Bildung and bilden – as sich bilden (the process of being formed) and gebildet sein (the state of being formed) – played an exceptional cultural role in Germany between 1770 and 1830. 6 Within the context of Neo-Humanism and Classicism, the idea of gaining a broad education as a human being, free of any specific, concrete or technical purpose, became a maxim for the individual, as well as for society as a whole. At the same time, the Enlightenment’s practical concept of education, with its focus on “economy and utility” and “career education and technology,” was devalued.7 In connection with a philosophically and aesthetically charged concept of culture, Bildung – despite, or precisely because of, an excess of idealistic meanings – became the “model for interpreting” the German bourgeoisie: culture as the medium of education (Bildung) is a “specifically German semantic innovation.”8 Its lasting effect on the history of ideas in Germany is demonstrated by (German) public radio’s “educational mission,” as prescribed by the German Supreme Court. As an institution, the Federal Republic’s dual system of media (private and public broadcasting regulated as one system) has to guarantee programming in the areas of art, culture and political information in order to promote the democratic common good and Bildung (personal development) of the users of the broadcasts.9

CONTEXTS: In its political bent against idealistic educational philosophy, the example of Gingrich’s speech in Chicago shows a competing belief that education results from the implementation of cultural technologies. Following the logic of this belief, the educative effect of reading books resides simply in the way reading improves the reader’s capacity for concentration. The serial progression of text on the page – if the passage is long enough – generates a constant increase of attention while reading. It is this quality that can be identified as a positive educative value of reading, especially when contrasted with the consumerist “channel surfing” of the television medium. Gingrich’s proposal just recycles old knowledge that states that no other medium possesses as great an educative surplus value as the medium of the book, as long as it is read correctly. For the “field of reading today is so great,” according to a typical theory of reading from the late 18th Century, “that it is highly dangerous to many a person if he believes he can find his way through it alone.”10 Only an expert knows how a reader, “whose only concern is the education (Bildung) of the intellect and the heart,” must read: one reads “a book for the first time away from all disturbance and with deliberate attention, often asking himself…what have I read?”11 Then “one progresses to a second reading, now with pen in hand, and records the chapters and order of presentation, noting what is striking, difficult, new and important, and writing down his own thoughts, ideas, and doubts.”12 Whoever repeatedly reads and writes at the same time – that is, underlines, comments, and expands on the text – can count with certainty on receiving the educative surplus value of reading books.

The fact that Bilden is associated with a precisely regulated technical use of a medium became the idea at the basis of the development and use of learning and teaching machines in the 20th Century. As the “good book” (gutes Buch), the book still remained highly valued as an educative medium, but new technologies were starting to replace it.13 As early as the beginning of the 20th century, in Rochester, New York, film was used for the first time as a teaching medium. For Thomas Edison, the inventor and businessman, it was clear that the book would be surpassed by noticeably more efficient moving pictures.14 Technical apparatuses could contribute to solving this fundamental problem: education was viewed as something of an inefficient process, because compared to the amount of effort put in, the results achieved were meager. A scientifically-optimized approach to teaching was needed.15 In 1924 in the US, Sidney L. Pressey built the first teaching machine which aimed at decisively improving educative processes, based on cost-benefit analyses. “Teaching machines are unique among instructional aids,” said Pressey about the advantages of his invention, “in that the student not merely passively listens, watches, or reads but actively responds. And as he does so he finds out whether his response is correct or not.”16 Progress can now be explicitly measured by the feedback-loop built into the learning machines. Efficiency alone does not, however, guarantee the overall development of the individuals involved in the teaching and learning processes.

Ever since the digitalization of media, the search for a more effective use of machine technology for educative processes has intensified. Under the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), internet-supported forms of teaching and learning have in many places replaced proven but cost-intensive seminars and lectures. Above all, innovations accompanying new, “smart” digital technologies promise economies of scale. Since anyone, regardless of income or location, can participate in this open-access technology, anyone can finally educate themselves. An educative utopia, the promise of an increase in efficiency and a reduction in cost, as well as aggressive marketing on the part of technology firms, are all inextricably linked, even if proof of the promised gains are lacking.17 Naïve in this current enthusiasm for digital forms of “distant learning” is the belief that there can be form-free educative contents: “There are no contents that can be extracted unchanged from one medium and instilled in another.”18

TRENDS: There is no clearly dateable beginning, no first, original idea or precisely datable submission of a patent for the use of media in contexts of education. Thus, general knowledge about the educative effects of reading – and this means both what is read, as well as how – is a timeless theme of media culture. This unspectacular, persistent trend contrasts with a mechanical, scientific understanding of educative media.19 In the belief in the breakthrough force of technological innovations, every new apparatus is potentially the start of a new cycle of trends.

And so, in the 1950s in the US, and ten years later in Germany, the language lab was introduced as an enormous technological innovation. Foreign languages could now supposedly be learned much faster simply as a result of an individual’s increased time spent speaking the language. The time spent speaking, however, only meant time spent repeating the teacher’s phrases. The engineers, as well as the learning psychologists, had given no thought to the practice of communicating in a new language. Since the proposed gain in efficiency did not emerge, enthusiasm waned, and by the middle of the 1970s, the language lab appeared to be a “failed experiment.”20

In a society that describes itself as a media society, the nexus of education and media is a self-evident certainty. And so, in 26 German universities and Fachhochschulen, there are programs of study in media pedagogy, generally all with a significant number of professors (as of the beginning of 2014).21 Behind this professionalization of the theme of media stands the conviction that one can only be educated (gebildet) if one knows how to effectively navigate the world of media. “Media literacy” is the catchphrase that has become the title of a program for an elaborate media policy that has reached all the way up to UNESCO:

Media Literacy aims to empower citizens by providing them with the competencies (knowledge, skills, and attitude) necessary to engage with traditional media and new technologies. It includes the following elements or learning outcomes:

• Understand the role and functions of media in democratic societies;

• Understand the condition under which media can fulfill their functions;

• Critically evaluate media content;

• Engage with media for self-expression and democratic participation; and

• Review skills (including Information, Communication and Technology skills) needed to produce user-generated content.22

Here, the semantics of “literacy,” originally simply the capacity to be able to read and write, break with the old educational philosophy of the 19th Century that was interpreted in terms of universal values and ideal norms. To educate oneself (sich bilden) now means to become skilled in the use of media. The goal of education is an understanding of the unique reality of media, since only through “media competence” can one use media effectively for one’s own purposes.23

COUNTER CONCEPTS: In the intellectual history of Germany, Bildung is an imperative: Everyone should be educated (sich bilden) and this means a achieving a sophisticated forming of oneself with fundamentally positive results on the individual as well as societal level. What impedes this grand imperative can be found on the non-exhaustive list of counter concepts: consumption, entertainment, distraction, the cultural industry (standardization), philistinism, etc. Excessive media use destroys what has been attained in education, democracy, and the common good.24

A second conceptual development occurs within the semantics of Bildung itself. This takes the form of a debate between two versions of Bildung. A true Bildung is proposed as the genuine version and therefore superior to any other. It is in precisely this fashion that Ted Nelson propagated his Hypertext project Xanadu as an anarchist and libertine project counter to all existing institutions of learning.25

PERSPECTIVES: The media-theoretical discussion of the educational effects of media use stands at odds with competing attempts to explain the phenomenon. For example, cultural criticism has lamented the decline of the one true – because founded on art and culture – Bildung, declaring its decline to be the result of a dominance of media. Clicking, gaming, surfing, or word-processing are treated as simple mechanico-technical operations within the contexts of entertainment or the enhancement of economic rationality, operations without any educational surplus value.26 On the other hand, the media industry proclaims that its new devices, such as E-books or tablets, have significant educational value, even without this claim having been verified by neutral research.27 User-friendly media technology – and no longer an idealized, exclusive art and culture – are now what yield educational effects: interactive learning, social networking or hypermedia learning represent a new paradigm.28 Genuine media-research-based interest, however, concentrates itself not on surface level selling points (i.e. “user-friendliness”), but on the intellectual processes involved in educational cultural techniques. Thus, in recent years, for example, scholarly cultural techniques – developed for the most part in the years before 1800 and used within the context of education and self-development – have been extensively researched. In particular, the interplay of techniques of intellectual work and indexing, processes of reading, or rules of excerpting, has been the focus of research, as idiosyncratic media practices.29 From a comparative historical perspective, the techniques of digital culture are not as new as the hype suggests. “The transition from print to digital media,” is according to Jerome J. McGann, “less a revolution than it is a convergence.”30 The relationship between media and education (Bildung) is therefore at no point an empty canvas, but accessible to historical research alone. And what actually happens is, contrary to the declared radical innovation, the “history of our digital present.”31

RESEARCH: Research on media and education (Bildung), media pedagogy, or media competency has long since become vast and overwhelming, especially because these topics have in the meantime become the subject of a world-wide discussion. Even an attempt at organization based on ideologically motivated grand theories remains unsuccessful. Such theories do not exist in this way any longer. Even where “educational media” are the subject of explicit research, conceptual definitions generally are so lacking that no contours can be made out. “In one broad understanding all media serve to found, strengthen and extend education.”32 Given this situation, a proposal by David Edgerton (Professor of History of Technology in the King’s College London) deserves attention. He proposes a research design that concentrates on what has what he terms “significance,” that is, on what also actually generates relevant effects.33 This litmus test could be applied to the often indiscriminately proceeding media research in the domains of education and self-development as well. But how is this “significance” to be determined? Is quantitative measurement enough, or do we need a qualitative estimate of the technological consequences of media operations? Is newness and innovation all that counts, as in the case of learning machines, or is it the lasting power with which a cultural technique, such as repetitive reading, can maintain over long periods that decides? If research on media culture is to orient itself based on this heuristic, then this represents no radical paradigm shift.34 But this only apparently simple heuristic is a welcome reminder of the pressing question of how the very long and complex history of the connection of education (Bildung) and media is to be written.

  1. Ferguson: What does Newt Gingrich Know? In NYT Magazine: http://www. r=0 [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  2. Bilden.” In: Kluge online. At: rskey=NiW0Xp&result=7&dbq_0=bilden&dbf_0=kluge-fulltext&dbt_0=fulltext&o_0=AND [accessed March 3, 2014]. 

  3. Bilden.” In: Grimm online. At: [accessed on March 27, 2014]. 

  4. “Bilden,” Grimm

  5. “Bilden,” Grimm

  6. See: Eduard Lichtenstein, “Bildung,” in Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer, Gottfried Gabriel(eds.): Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Bd. 1, Basel/Stuttgart (1971), col. 921–937. 

  7. Georg Bollenbeck, Bildung und Kultur, Glanz und Elend eines deutschen Deutungsmusters (Frankfurt/M.: 1994), 99. 

  8. Bollenbeck, Bildung und Kultur, 96. 

  9. See Josef Eckhardt, “Wie erfüllt der öffentlich-rechtliche Rundfunk seinen Kulturauftrag?” In: Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Rundfunkökonomie an der Universität zu Köln, 1–15: http://www.rundfunk-institut.unikoeln. de/institut/.  

  10. J.M.G. Beseke, “Ueber Lektüre und Selbststudium,” in: Deutsches Museum, Bd. 1, (1786), 360. 

  11. Beseke, “Ueber Lektüre und Selbststudium,” 362. 

  12. Beseke, “Ueber Lektüre und Selbststudium,” 365. 

  13. Peter Altenberg, “Vom Lesen und von guten Büchern. Eine Rundfrage der Redaktion der Neuen Blätter für Literatur und Kunst. 32 Originalbriefe, eingeleitet durch einen Brief von Hugo von Hofmannsthal,” (Wien: 1907), I–XVI. 

  14. See Pias: Automatisierung der Lehre. In: FAZ online. At: aktuell/feuilleton/forschung-und-lehre/automatisierung-der-lehre-eine-kurze-geschichte- derunterrichtsmaschinen-12692010.html [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  15. Pias, “Automatisierung der Lehre”. 

  16. Pressey: History of Instructional Design. At history-of-instructional-design–2 [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  17. See Todd Oppenheimer, “Computer Delusion,” Atlantic Monthly: http://www. [accesses March 27, 2014]. 

  18. Pias, “Automatisierung der Lehre”. 

  19. Pias, “Automatisierung der Lehre”. 

  20. See: Udo O. H. Jung and Marlis H. Haase (eds.): Fehlinvestition Sprachlabor? Beiträge zu einem konstruktiven Sprachunterricht mit technischen Medien, IPTS-Schriften 6 (Kiel:1975). 

  21. See Webseite der Gesellschaft für Medienpädagogik und Medienkultur. At: http://www. [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  22. UNESCO: Communication and Information. Media Literacy. At: http://www.unesco. org/new/en/communication-and-information/media-development/media-literacy/ [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  23. See: Dieter Baacke, Kommunikation und Kompetenz. Grundlegung einer Didaktik der Kommunikation und ihrer Medien (München: 1973). 

  24. See: Markus Reiter, Dumm 3.0. Wie Twitter, Blogs und Networks unsere Kultur bedrohen (München: 2013). 

  25. See: Gary Wolf, “The Curse of Xanadu,” in WIRED (June 1995): archive/3.06/xanadu.html [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  26. See: Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “Kulturindustrie, Aufklärung als Massenbetrug,” in Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente (Frankfurt/M.: 2012), 148–196. 

  27. See: Brooks Barnes, “A Tablet for Children That Comes With Its Own Penguins,” NYT online (January 2, 2014): own-penguins.html?&_r=0 [accessed March 27, 2014]. 

  28. See: Frank Rennie and Tara Morrison  (eds.), e-learning and Social Networking Handbook (New York: Resources for Higher Education, 2013). 

  29. See: Jürgen Fohrmann (ed.), Gelehrte Kommunikation (Köln: Wissenschaft und Medium zwischen dem 16. und 20. Jahrhundert, 2005). 

  30. Scott Pound, “Towards Philology in a New Key. A Feature Interview with Jerome J. McGann,” Amodern 1 (2014): [accessed March 31, 2014]. 

  31. Jordan Mejias, “Es ist lächerlich, das Internet erklären zu wollen!” FAZ online (October 12, 2013): http:// [accessed March 27, 2014].  

  32. Hans-Dieter Kübler, “Bildungsmedien,” in Jürgen Hüther, Bernd Schorb, and Christiane Brehm-Klotz, (eds.): Grundbegriffe Medienpädagogik (München: 1997), 40. 

  33. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1-27. 

  34. Edgerton, The Shock of the Old, 680-97. 

Translation by Spencer Hadley.
Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).