L'Explosion de la communication

Philippe Breton

Serge Proulx

Communication plays a dominant role in our work and leisure today. Indeed, a vast proportion of jobs in North America and Europe involve the manipulation of information, most notably on computers. One can observe, furthermore, that there are many people who spend more leisure time engaged in mediated activities (such as interacting with computers or watching television) than they do conversing directly with other people. L'Explosion de la communication discusses how the present situation arose. The title refers to a growth in the importance of communication that started in the 1940s and 1950s. It was around that time, following the two world wars, that communication began to be perceived as a potential way of addressing and solving social issues, and of bridging the gaps between various peoples. The mass media, beyond distracting them from their day-to-day concerns, could give people a broader perspective on their lives and how to lead them.

Philippe Breton and Serge Proulx, both professors of communication, the former in Strasbourg, the latter in Montréal, begin their book by providing a history of mass media, telecommunication and computing. This review begins with the emergence of writing around 4000 B.C. as a means of preserving information through time. There follow observations on rhetoric in Ancient Greece, oratory in Rome, and so on, leading eventually to an examination of contemporary modes of mass communication, in all their variety. The book focuses in large part on the impact of the computer as a social phenomenon. Such an emphasis makes the book particularly timely. The authors prepare the reader for this focus by noting certain ideas that are antecedents of computing as we know it today. For instance, Descartes, in the seventeenth century, hypothesized that notions of causality could be formalized in such a way that machines could take over certain aspects of human reasoning. Through such observations, the authors show that much time can elapse between the birth of an idea and its realization in concrete terms.

In describing the spread of communication as an idea and a practice throughout the world, Breton and Proulx offer a wide-ranging review of many ideas at the heart of communication today. The book is comprehensive, and in this respect it is a useful introduction to communication, not only because it describes its development, but also because it outlines many important approaches to the study of communication, from classical theory to systems theory, from semiotics to cultural studies. It can be a very useful guide for those advanced students who wish to acquire a general acquaintance with the field before taking a specific direction in their studies.

Some of the issues raised in the book will be familiar to students of communication. Such individuals, however, need not perceive this familiarity as a drawback. Rather, reading the book can allow them to reinforce knowledge that they already have. In addition, there is a measure of novelty in the book that results from its sometimes original juxtaposition of ideas from different sources. For example, the authors use a variety of sources to support the point that the mass media reflect the dominant ideology. They cite Stuart Hall, who says that the discourse of the mass media often includes terms whose connotations legitimate the dominant group's actions at the expense of the subordinate groups. They then cite Jean Baudrillard, who claims that the media's emphasis on events (scandals, riots, assassinations and so on) draws the audience's attention away from more consequential social concerns. Breton and Proulx also talk about how the mass media overwhelm the audience with large quantities of information of dubious relevance, and how they emphasize style over substance.

An ulterior edition would benefit from having an index. Such a book can be quite useful as a work of reference, one to which the reader can return again and again. The absence of an index simply makes the search for relevant passages more challenging. The bibliography, however, is excellent, and well worth a look.

It is pertinent to remark that L'Explosion de la communication does not pretend to be the last word on the ever-changing field of communication. In the final chapter, dealing with the future of communication, the authors concede that the only predictable thing about the future is its unpredictability. In keeping with this view, Breton and Proulx pose a large number of questions in the concluding paragraphs, encouraging the reader to think, not only about the questions, but about the many significant issues raised throughout the book.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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