An Optimistic View of the Future of Media

  By Ben Rubin   7.25.13

+Max Lent sent me this compelling animated video highlighting fears of modern communication and technology.  It has relevant questions for our jungle of social media, yet the video ironically helps reinforce my support and acceptance of social media - and new technology trends as a whole.  

The Long Lens
When considering modern technology and drastic shifts in society, it's worth taking a step back before making foreboding predictions about society's dissolution.  Let's take a big step back.  Imagine you are looking down from the clouds on an ancient culture on the brink of an explosion in written language.  This could be a society just beginning to use cuneiform, hieroglyphics, Old English - doesn't matter much.  This burst in communication is paired with advances in technology, and you see the new clay tablets and cutting tools, papyrus and inks, or Coptic book bindings and calligraphy (depending on your culture of choice).  In any case, there is a massive shift in society.  Established traditions in mnemonics and oration are being challenged by new communication tools that supplement internal human mediums for external ones.

Imagine someone at that time witnessing this change that is dependent on the old traditions and technology - what would they think?  Both reading and writing are not something that can be acquired like primary language (spoken, signed) - they require lots of specific training - so the new systems are creating social divisions and hierarchy based on education.  Reading and writing are antisocial activities that involve hours alone thinking away from the group.  It involves an incredible amount of concentration into something 'non-human' - be it tablet, paper, or book.  Person-to-person communication is being eroded.

Cultural Shifts
Lets fast-forward to a new generation in Europe glued to their freshly printed bibles - practically pressing them to their noses throughout the mid 15th century during the birth of print media.  It looks strangely similar to our present-day smartphone junkies.  We can branch out and look at the new telephone from the eyes of a letter-writer - or a fancy motion picture through the lens of a radio producer.  In all of these, the provocative new cultural shift appears to be paving over a way of life.  Yet from the modern perspective, these are accepted technologies that haven't exactly derailed civilization.  In fact, some could argue that it is the process of translating ideas through these shifts that tempers them into history.  Although Socrates is known for being a brilliant orator, it is only through the transcriptions of Plato and his other students that his ideas are still alive today.

Taking the long perspective of the 'wrong side of history' is reassuring for me because it identifies the unavoidable blind-spots of the present.  The arts of the prior generation aren't necessarily lost, but adapted (I still listen to radio podcasts daily).  One-sided criticisms overlook the long-term benefits new tools offer for sharing information and ideas.  By engaging in an arm-wrestle with the future, they also end up devaluing the unique qualities their medium of choice has to offer through needless comparisons.  

Tools That Challenge Vulnerabilities
Turning our attention back to the video, the narrator makes some references in the beginning to language as the tool that allows humans to have larger social groups than monkeys.  I think this early emission is key for me: humans rely on developing tools.  Even our social structures rely on these tools, and have been impacted by them for thousands of years.  Language is a social system that connects billions of people together.  These obviously aren't all intimate relationships, but allow us a greater capacity for them.  Towards the end of the video, the narrator reminds us that people are vulnerable.  Fast-acting techno/social shifts demand all generations learn new skills simultaneously, which flips the seniority of knowledge to favor the flexibility of younger generations.  While society viewed from afar may seem extremely adaptable, individuals and groups may struggle with new challenges.  Without experience or clear guidance, these shifts certainly have their fair share of pitfalls and exploitation.  Much like ourselves, our various technologies and societies each have their own array of shortcomings and weaknesses all on their own.  But I would argue that through the interconnection of all these individuals, groups, societies, and technologies, we are challenged to grow stronger and more balanced.

The Beautiful Paradox 
You may have already noticed that the video itself is effectively broadcasted through social media; exemplifying benefits of the technology that it neglects to mention.  In less than a week since it's publication, it has been watched almost 70,000 times.  It has undoubtedly started many new conversations, both digital and in person.  In my case, it even inspired an entire afternoon and several pleasant evenings spent organizing and clarifying my thoughts; to share with you as well as myself.

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