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The Codex and Television: Two Parallel Design Forms

Significance of the Codex Form

The codex form stands as an iconic symbol. As a communication design form, it fundamentally restructured the ways in which humans organized their thoughts and knowledge. McCluhan noted that the “transmission of studies and disciplines by the printed book has not been so much a transmission as a complete transformation of the disciplines and of the human mind as well.” (1962. P. 262). As a design form, the (text) codex can be seen as a transformative communication invention that excavated and processed human thinking on an enormous scale. We can use this design form to categorize other rare codex like inventions that have also profoundly reorganized their mediums and transformed human thinking. In the process, we can understand better the interactions between competing codex forms that are taking place today and the implications for the future.

Brief History of the Codex

In its essential form, the text codex is a highly efficient, light-reflecting tool, capturing the ambient light waves reflecting off the surface of its pages and into our eyes and minds. The codex’s predecessor, the scroll achieved this affect too, but its continuous, highly linear form, trapped human thinking within its awkward and limiting expression of a writing space as a coil. From its early manifestations in the 2nd century AD, the simple physical orientation of the text codex, its front and back cover, its left to right reading orientation, and the layering and binding of pages created a framework that exploited enormous economies of scale and allowed authors and readers to reorganize the text (Chartier, 1999, p19). Over the next few centuries the increasing familiarity with numbered pages, punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indices, and so forth helped reorganize the thoughts of readers and authors.(Eisenstein, 1979, p 105) The codex form created a clear and discrete container that physically defined knowledge into subjects and units and also reshaped narratives by giving a clear beginning, middle and an end to story structures (Bolter p77-79).

The Codex Form: bound pages, enclosed in a front and back cover. Source:[1]

In early iterations, codices were published by Christian groups and wealthy elites. Over time, the value of the codex became evident, especially in the hands of Christian communities who exploited the codex’s mobility to spread their message. By the time Guttenburg printed his first bible in the mid fifteenth century, the inherent organizational and reproductive functionality of the text codex form had been identified. The printing press unleashed the full transformative magic of the text codex. Amazing economies of scale were achieved making mass production of the printed codex economically viable. And the simple mobility of this design form allowed it to be incorporated into people’s daily travels and experiences and thus gave physical impetus to the proliferation of ideas and stories. The Renaissance, the Reformation, global exploration, capitalism, modern education, democracy all had their roots in the ability of the printed codex form to record, store and distribute ideas (Ong, 2002, p.116).

Brief History of Television

Other communication forms have also had a transformative impact on society. Photography, the telegraph, radio, cinema are other profoundly important communication mediums that have also harnessed the resources of light and sound to excavate, process and distribute human ideas. Yet none of these inventions, although highly powerful and engaging, have induced as profound a reorganization of human thinking and culture as the text codex with the exception of television. A closer look at TV’s development also reveals a codex like reorganization of a communication form that has come to alter our thinking and cultural perceptions.

From its rudimentary beginnings in the late 1930’s, the television codex form quickly demonstrated its ability to organize and process human communication. This time the codex form did not manufacture reflected light off of paper surfaces, but instead manufactured the light source itself, emitting the light waves directly out of a box. The process of transmitting media over electric circuits and wireless waves and emitting the light into our homes through a small screen achieved new economies of scale in terms of the processing and distribution of sound and visual media. Communication could enter our homes like a water connection: a controlled, continuous flow of images, sound and text delivered to millions of homes. In a parallel to the development of the text codex, the TV harnessed the scroll of film reels and the orality of radio voices into a new media codex form with dramatic social impact. “Throughout the country, millions of people hear the same broadcast programs, with the same stars in the same situations, and the same topical references to personalities and places. All this produces a measure of shared cultural experience which no other society has ever known.” (Bogart, Ungar 1956, p 24).

Television: a media codex organizing the flow of media into homes. Source:[2]

Television, as a media codex in the home, organized our access to media content that was delivered in a repeatable program format day after day, night after night. This kind of media access and organization proved extremely popular. As early as the mid 50’s, “The appeal of television--as measured by the size of its audiences, night after night, and the amount of time spent viewing-is far greater than that achieved by any other medium of mass communication. “(Bogart, Ungar, 1956, p 60). Similar to the affects of the original text codex this media codex created an ergonomic form that blended into the customs and behaviors of western lives. The television was welcomed as a piece of functional furniture. The design form now allowed people to experience media in the sanctuary and comfort of their living rooms. As a design form, the TV, as did the text codex, ingratiated itself into the daily workings of people’s lives. By 1960, TV had nearly saturated the population until the mid 80’s when 99% of US households had at least one TV set. (Condry, 1989, p 12)

On the production side of early TV, the authors and publishers of media content were broadcasting companies who staked out various wavelengths or channels on which to distribute their content. In some countries early broadcasters were, and still are, heavily regulated by governments. In the US, however, broadcasters had more autonomy to devise programming and broadcasting models. This distribution and production freedom, coupled with ability of the TV box to be so easily integrated into homes, set the stage for a rapid adoption of TV in the US. Supported by large advertising revenues, detailed statistical examination of people’s viewing habits led to rapidly evolving and sophisticated programming designs. The day was segmented into qualitative time slots, and specific demographic groups were targeted with content offerings. New narrative forms evolved such as the sitcom, the game show and the talk show. Sports programming exploded and programs like the evening news became an institution for millions of homes. By the 60’s and 70’s, TV hosted cultural, political and international events watched by hundreds of millions of people. As a result, the perceptions and values of an entire civilization were impacted through the watching of television programs. Just as the text codex’s influence has been felt world wide over its history, the TV media codex has had a similar reach where “the television audience has truly become the 'laity' of a new supernational community, exceeding the scope but not the ambition of the medieval Catholic church, overlaying traditional citizenship with something new.” (Hartley, 1999, p158)

The Internet as Digital Media Codex

In their fundamental manifestations the text and TV media codices both induce parallel fundamental re-organizations of human thought and perception on a world wide scale. Today, they compete somewhat for the attention of readers and viewers but for the most part, early predictions of TV’s negative impact on reading have not come to pass. (Condry, 1989, p30). These codices coexist in society as two distinct light wave resource models with essentially unique production and distribution qualities. However, it is in the emerging form of the internet where the text codex and the TV media codex are coming into direct conflict.

Internet TV: An example of the internet and the browser as evolutionary stages of the TV media codex. Source:[3]

TV and internet technology have much in common. In their fundamental forms they are both light emitting wave communication design forms with intimate design similarities. Each employs similar screen shapes, and both use hand held remote devices to navigate with. They share the same wire as they enter our homes and, as of recently, they are both digital. But the browser, in particular, is having a Guttenburg–like affect on the evolution of the TV media codex. Not just a window to view content, the browser is now a tool to create content. Hundreds of millions of people are posting videos, images, music, and sound, for public consumption. In this multimedia environment, the browser acts as a broadcasting medium for authors and and an extension of the TV media codex for viewers. Print still flourishes in the browser window. But now under the influence of the screen dimensions and the possibilities of hyper linking there are new ideas on the effective authoring of text in the screen environment. For example, blog authoring is one of the leading forms of this user-generated content. In order to attract an audience, tens of millions of blog authors post short, chronological, media rich content that imply a TV programming rationale. Blogs often look like news programs, reality TV and episodic programming that broadcasts to a network of users who choose to link in when they feel like it. Long, text oriented formats accepted in the text codex are rarely tolerated by surfers in the online space. Web surfing itself is an extension of our channel surfing behaviors of the past few decades. To be an effective author online is to think in terms of media integration and TV like viewing habits. Seen in this way the internet and the browser in particular, share a deep, underlying connection with television and could be understood as the next generation of the media codex. In the shadow of such historical development, the role of the text codex comes into question.

Implications for Future Codices

The text codex will not disappear. It is a design form that has proven its value over several centuries. However, the Guttenburg like scale of development occurring for the TV media codex form does raise serious questions about the text codex’s future stature as a preeminent form of organization for human knowledge and ideas. TV has already proven its ability to influence humanity and as billions of users engage in this new iteration of the media codex, the text codex could lose its influence over the way we think. As Chartier noted “ The substitution of screen for codex is a far more radical transformation because it changes methods of organization, structure, consultation, even the appearance of the written word.” (1995, p.15). Grounded in the ethos of television, the screen’s potential to capture our imaginations cannot be underestimated.


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Chartier, R. (1995). Forms and meanings: Texts, performances, and audiences from codex to computer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hartley, John (1999). Uses of Television. London: Routledge.

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Inman, J. A. (2004). Computers and Writing: The Cyborg Era. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Marshall, J. A. (2002). The Language of Television. London: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.