Sunday, 11 March 2007

22. What made our digital age?

You have been watching television since your were a few days old. You started surfing the internet as soon as it became available. You now have your own web-site, digital camera and can phone almost anyone you like from anywhere. Perhaps you do not need to be reminded of how your life is awash with the effects of information technology and how different all this is from your ancestors. Yet you may not know much about how this extraordinary world came about and how recent it all is.

What is information technology?

For almost all of human history the major way in which humans could communicate was by using their voices or bodies. This was the age of oral and performance arts.

Then, more than five thousand years ago in the middle East people started to develop a simple form of hand-writing. So the age of signs and symbols, which had earlier been present in another form in rock painting, developed. This age lasted until two hundred years ago. The only way to capture and pass on information, apart from the voice and body, was by transforming it through the brain in painting, writing or mathematical notation. Most of our great arts, literature and science come from this process. The period is sub-divided into two by the discovery of the movable metal type printing press in about 1450 A.D.

The third age was that of mechanical reproduction. With the discovery of photography in the 1830’s, it became possible to use machines to gather and pass on information. This age of recorded information has continued up to the present. It can again be sub-divided into two phases. There is the era of photographic and film-making machines until about 1950 and the electronic or digital era of television and the computer since then.

These three ages of oral, representational and recorded communication, sub-split into oral, writing, printing, photographic and electronic technologies, built on each other. One mode does not wipe out the previous methods, but cumulatively adds to it. So you still use all of the technologies, talking, dancing, painting, writing, printing, photography, television and computers. Each has special strengths and certain weaknesses. Much of the art of modern life consists in deciding which is appropriate in order to learn about the world and to share your ideas with others. The layers of co-existing technology are one of the reasons why our world is awash with information.

What is the difference between speech and writing?

Writing is, in many ways, much more powerful than speaking. It eliminates the need for both the speaker and listener to be in the same place at the same time. The reader can now read when she likes, at a distance, and can take up or put down the writing, re-read and concentrate and compare versions, make amendments.

The power of writing made world religions possible. Once there was literacy, religious truths could be written down so that we have what are known as the ‘religions of the book’, that is Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is now a written and definitive version of the standard truths. There is a universal and uniform message from God or the gods. There is a literate priesthood to interpret these truths. There are increasingly firm boundaries between Good and Evil. Religion as we know it is a bi-product of writing.

Likewise the economy is based on writing. Accounting, money, credit, taxation, rents, private property, exchange, all of these are virtually impossible to develop without some way of storing and transmitting information outside the individual human mind. The huge trading networks and complex bureaucracies of the early civilizations could not have developed without writing. Likewise the presence of writing inaugurated the State. Leaders could now control space and time in a new way and turn tribesmen into subjects. State officials and state organization all require writing.

The development of law as a separate sphere was made possible by writing. There were legal codes and written precedents, judges and lawyers emerged to interpret and adjudicate. People could leave property through written wills, contracts could be made and witnessed, written evidence presented in court. Indeed a new concept of an external ‘truth’, existing outside the biased opinions of individuals and universally applicable, arose. This was the basis not only of law, but also of science.

All of these developments became even more powerful when the Greeks perfected alphabetic, non-pictographic, writing in about 900 B.C. No longer did writing take the form of little pictures of reality (pictographs), but became an incredibly powerful symbolic, that is arbitrary but meaningful, tool. With writing, humans could pursue truth and transmit their emotions in an efficient and cumulative way.

What is the Gutenberg Galaxy?

When Gutenberg developed the modern (movable metal letters) printing press in Germany in the 1450’s, it almost immediately changed the western world. Printing was, in a memorable phrase, the ‘gunpowder of the mind’. It caused a vast change in religion, politics, arts and sciences. Here was a way of preserving, exchanging and accumulating information which was as large a leap for humans as today’s computer and internet revolution.

Gutenberg and then others very rapidly developed a device for the mass-production of identical artefacts. This early machine-production was applied to the multiplication of ideas. Within a hundred years, printing techniques were vastly improved, and over the three hundred years from 1550 profound changes occurred, ending up with colour plates, mass publishing of cheap books, steam presses. Today, in Britain alone, over one hundred thousand new books are published every year.

The appearance of the printing press coincided with and heightened the political and religious divisions in Europe. It is doubtful whether the Protestant Reformation would have occurred without the distribution of the anti-Papal texts and bibles in local languages. Now people could interpret God’s message for themselves, reading it in German, French or English, rather than in Latin.

Without the stress on local languages in which the new books were printed, there would not have been the growth of nationalism. Some people started to think of themselves as ‘Germans’, ‘Spaniards’, ‘Italians’ and so on.

At a deeper level there are numerous theories as to the effects of the 'Gutenberg Galaxy' on how humans think. Printing almost certainly changed these of perspective, of linearity of truth (we read across or down the page and assume that truth is so read), of time. It undoubtedly changed the way reality is perceived, strengthening the concept of the individual, of the external 'text' which contained truth, of the change and progress and improvement of ideas, of an expanding universe of knowledge.

The arrival of printing in Europe suddenly gave a particular impetus to what we call the Renaissance. Many have suggested that without the multiplication of texts made possible by printing, it would have been much more difficult for the sixteenth and seventeenth century scientific revolution to have happened. So it would seem that a relatively simple change in technology was behind much of the political, religious and intellectual ferment in the west since the fifteenth century.

Does printing change everything?

Yet what is surprising is that this is not a feature of printing in itself. The results were not inevitable. Like all technologies, which are extensions of the human body, printing was just another tool. It could be used to create and maintain revolutionary changes, or it could be used to conserve and prevent change. It did not necessarily lead to fresh ideas. We can see this clearly if we look at the other end of the land mass of which western Europe is one small tip, at the great and much more ancient civilizations of China and Japan.

In China the press with movable print was invented at least three centuries earlier than in Europe. Books using movable type or woodblock plates, mainly religious texts, multiplied and huge editions were printed. Yet after the first invention there was little advance. There were few major innovations in the next five hundred years. Although the printing and publishing of books grew hugely in Japan and there was a more widespread use of books than in any part of Europe, the technology of printing did not change much.

The revolutionary effects attributed to printing in the west, that is political revolution (nationalism), religious revolution (Protestantism), psychological and intellectual revolution (individualism, ideas of progress, open thought, science) were absent. There was rapid growth in printed matter, but little else.

The Chinese and Japanese cases remind us that none of the effects we see in the west were a necessary result of printing in itself. Printing became the agent of changes which were equally the result of other pressures.

How different are paintings and photographs?

A new era of communication began in the 1830’s when it became possible to use a machine to capture a slice of the natural world. The ancient device of the camera obscura, which let light into a dark box through a pin-hole thereby producing an inverted image, was modified. United with chemistry, it produced photographic plates. From this developed modern photography and moving pictures or cinema from the 1890’s.

Photographs gave an instantaneous cross-section of reality in ways that not even the greatest artists could achieve. They were multiplied into many copies through books and photo-journalism. Photographs gave permanence to the ephemeral and allowed humans to dissect the almost invisible, revolutionizing our knowledge of disease. The camera shrank and expanded the world, bringing far-off lands close, and allowing humans to capture distant space so that when combined with the telescope it helped us map the universe.

The world began to be seen through glass. Improving lenses made reality sharper and brighter than it had ever been. We became saturated in images which fed our desires and created new ones through advertising. We became tourists of reality, consumers of fantasies.

When these still images were strung together into moving sequences, the power of reproductive technology was further increased and from the 1930’s sound and colour gave us the modern cinema. Films changed our concepts of time and space, became an art form alongside novels, creating powerful fantasies and myths. The effects were increased immensely with the development of television from the experiments of the 1930’s.

What is the digital age?

Television is fundamentally different from film, both because it enters our living rooms and because the way the signal works provides a particularly involving experience for human beings. It gives us an instantaneous and highly emotional picture of other lives. It has broken down the boundaries between public and private life, undermined divisions and inequalities.

As the writer on media Joshua Meyorwitz has put it, ‘Television has helped change the deferential Negro into the proud Black, merged the Miss and Mrs into a Ms., transformed the child into a “human being” with natural rights…It has led to a decline in the image and prestige of political leaders, it has demystified adults for children and demystified men and women for each other.’

Television has turned our diverse and spacious world into a global village, helped destroy Communism by showing the advantages of consumer capitalism, and altered the way we see the natural world. Even in the most appalling slums, television brings a little glamour and hope. Yet its effects can also be over-stated. While television is switched on for many hours in many homes throughout the world, most people hardly watch it. They just have it on as a background to their lives, like a talkative old grand-father muttering in the corner chair.

When did we start to hurtle through space?

This has been the story of only one strand of communication technologies. You will know that there are many others. One set relates to travel. There have really been two great changes here.

For many thousands of years it was impossible for humans to travel at more than about twenty-five miles an hour (on horseback). Then in the 1830’s the first steam trains suddenly rushed them into an era where they were soon travelling at two or three times that speed. The railway system altered life in numerous ways, changing the nature of cities, the patterns of leisure, the concepts of landscape and space, and opening up continents like North and South America, India and China.

The second was the car and plane revolution of the early twentieth century. Combined with steam driven ships and now jet propelled planes, people can move huge volumes of goods (including themselves) at incredible rates. The love affair with the car, once described as ‘the mechanical bride’ (or bridegroom), began. The effects are so much with us that we tend to forget them.

I always find it a great shock to reach the limits of the wheel at the top of a valley in Nepal. There I realize I have moved back to a world where everyone had to walk or ride on animals. The recompense is clean air and a sense of time slowing down. The disadvantage is aching arms and legs and a gruelling life for many poor people.

Is e-mail addictive?

The other great change is in one-to-one electronic communication. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the fastest a message could travel was again limited to the speed of an animal or bird (pigeon post), or, over short distances, a drum beat. Then, when the telegraph was invented and cables laid across land and ocean, and then the telephone spread, the speed increased to over six hundred miles per hour, the speed of sound.

This great leap has been made even more powerful at the end of the twentieth century by the unplugging of the phone. Now we are all potentially connected to almost everybody all the time. Physical and social space have become disconnected. We form virtual communities and may be ‘closer’ to someone in India or China than to the person standing next to us.

These telegraph and telephone connections have been revolutionized by digital connections through e-mail. I remember my resistance to the e-mail in the middle of the 1990’s when it first appeared. For several years I found it an irritating and threatening new technology. Once I had succumbed, like many people I became an addict.

When it works, it builds on the best feature of letter-writing, that is the time to deliberate, to change what we want to say, the fact that we do not have to catch the other person’s attention directly. Yet it is better than a letter. It is cheaper, much more immediate, gets there very much faster, you can send pictures and attach documents easily. You will forget that a world existed before e-mail and you will certainly leave far less trace of your life and ideas than we, the last letter-writing generation, have.

If technologies of information in the past have often had such profound, but unexpected, effects, it is not difficult to imagine how powerful modern media must be changing our world today. It would clearly be impossible to run a modern economy or society without them. Publishing, newspapers, banks, the stock exchange, airports, hospitals, universities would all collapse if the electronic media were switched off. Down to the details of many people’s lives, trying to meet friends on a busy platform or ordering their shopping on-line, our lives are media entwined. High-density internet links (broadband) are transforming India and China, as earlier media transformed the West.

And this is just a start. You are standing on the edge of even more amazing advances which it is impossible to predict. I remember being told in the 1970’s that one day all the books in the largest library in the world would fit into something the size of a sugar lump. I was not told that this sugar-lump might then be connected to other lumps of data and all available on a wrist-watch communicator. Nor would I have believed any of this at a time when the largest computer in Britain could not hold what will now fit onto a compact disc. Yet we are now close to that sugar-lump.

How can we survive in the digital age?

Do not forget that swallowing the largest library in the world can cause indigestion. With thousands of web-sites, television channels, computer games, text messages and phone calls awaiting and assailing us, it is easy to become drowned, to become media addicts in a world of virtual reality. Are there any things I have learnt to help me survive?

One is to try to stick to one medium at a time. There is a temptation to try to absorb too much in too many ways, to enjoy music on our CD-walkman or i-Pod while at the same time e-mailing someone on our laptop and being interrupted by constant bleeps from our mobile phone and in the corner the TV trying to attract our attention. Add a meal we are trying to eat and some young children demanding our attention and the result is exhaustion.

To a considerable extent we have a very narrow receiving mechanism and if we try to absorb too many things they often conflict. Just the action of talking absorbs much of our random access memory (RAM) as it were, and to try to talk about complex subjects and drive well at the same time, as your granny often reminds me, is pushing my abilities to their limits. This is one of the reasons why people still go to cinemas for good films; it is a total experience and all mobile phones are switched off. Many forms of communication are only really enjoyed one at a time.

A second thing is to try to understand a little not only about how one reads or passively receives a medium but how it is constructed. The best way to understand the way we are tricked and seduced by television or photography is to learn to make films (filming, editing) and how to photograph and modify photographs (in the old days develop, now use a computer program). Thousands of lessons at school are devoted to the craft of writing and reading, but we are left largely to ourselves in the craft of how to construct and decode the much more powerful visual media which now dominate our lives.

In some ways this self-education has become much easier. The tendency over the centuries was for individuals to become more and more the passive recipients of media. In early societies, most people would be involved in the creating as well as appreciation of song, dance, formal speech. But writing, printing and then television tipped the balance towards technologies that create an imbalance between transmitter and receiver.

One major factor was the capital cost of the technical equipment, which reinforced things like producer’s monopoly, political control and censorship. In essence it is far cheaper to buy a book or television film than to produce one. A television series I was involved in cost about £200,000 per episode. Few of us have that money to spend.

Yet in the late twentieth century the first great technological innovation that restores a little of the balance has occurred, namely the internet revolution. Although there is now the problem of gaining attention when so much is available on the world wide web, the new medium does suddenly allow each of us to be a publisher, to make as well as to receive.

We can design a web-site, put on photographs and films, become a little broadcasting (or narrow-casting) station. Even if only a few people log on to the web-site, it is out there and in making it we learn some of the tricks which are constantly used to beguile us. Have a look at my amateur efforts on and you will see what I mean.

On the other hand, there is a downside to this. Like all technologies the internet can be used in other ways. It potentially increases the control of authority over its subordinates, the foreign office over ambassadors, generals over subalterns, directors over far-flung agents. Initiative can be stifled and central power extended.

A final very personal bit of advice. Much stress from media comes from staring at screens for hours. After a while we stop enjoying the experience, our minds dull, the problems seem insoluble. As the old saying has it, ‘variety is the spice of life’. Never do anything that requires the combined deep concentration of the eye and mind for more than an hour before having a break. After half a day stop entirely and do something entirely different. It is not only your eyes which will benefit. With media, as with so many things in life, less is more.

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