We’re often so caught up in our day-to-day activities that we hardly have the time to stop and consider how we are communicating and where our methods and devices come from. Here is a timeline of a few communication firsts, how they were used and, in some cases, the length of time it took to transmit the message in comparison to the distance the message could travel.

Media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, developed the concept of figure and ground based on Gestalt psychology. He used this concept to explain how a form of communications technology – defined as the medium or figure – necessarily operates through its context, or ground. In his work, and through this concept that we can better understand the meaning of his famous phrase, “The medium is the message.”

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McLuhan strongly believed that to fully grasp the impact of a new technology, one must examine both figure (medium) and ground (context) together. Neither figure nor ground is fully intelligible without the other. He argued that it was critical to study media in its historical context – particularly in relation to technologies that preceded them. This was because the present environment, made up of the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies. In turn, these new technologies further affect individuals and society.

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McLuhan believed that all technologies are embedded with their own assumptions about time and space. The message conveyed by the medium can only be understood if the medium and the environment in which it is used are analyzed together. He believed that an examination of the figure-ground relationship could offer a critical commentary on culture and society.

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To gain a better understand media, technology, culture and society in its current form, we should look back on the past and reflect on the first methods of communication and their context, and how they have shaped our society and culture, and the technology we use today. From smoke signals to social networking, humans have come a long way in the quest to communicate in the most efficient way. So what’s next? We’d like to think that holographic communications circa Star Wars and augmented reality in Minority Report is the natural next step, but what do you think?

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