The history of media tells us the web will change the world profoundly

By May 22, 2008New Media

I am reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and the following passages are stand out reminders of the scale of the revolution we are living through.

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in under a generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communications tools. The truly dramatic changes in such tools can be counted on the fingers of one hand: the printing press and moveable type (considered as one long period of innovation): the telegraph and telephone; recorded content (music, then movies); and finally the harnessing of radio signals (for broadcasting radio and TV). None of these examples was a simple improvement, which is to say a better way of doing what a society already did. Instead, each was a real break with the continuity of the past, because any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society. A culture with printing presses is a different kind of culture from one that doesn’t have them.

and

Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible: put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are important and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.

The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be constrained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down [sic], or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.

Clay goes on to talk at length about Wikipedia, and how web enabled collaboration has changed the world of encyclopedias. Indeed how it has changed the very nature of an encyclopedia – articles have gone from being artifacts to being processes, and wikipedia has added a partial commentary on current affairs to the traditional facts and history of the the hard bound encyclopedias of our youths.

For me, formerly venerable and seemingly invulnerable institutions at
risk include record companies, TV broadcasters and newspapers.

More important (and inspiring) is the reminder that the web will change the world beyond recognition – as the printing press, telephone and TV have all done before. We are still at the start of that revolution.

Here Comes Everybody was kindly given to me by new UK online bookstore BookRabbit (cheaper than Amazon on 100,000 books…) at London’s Social Media Cafe the Friday before last.

  • A different perspective on media development is here http://sophisticatedfinance.typepad.com/sophisticated_finance/2008/04/technology-effe.html
    Some research by two Harvard professors presents some findings which suggest a different explanation for the history of media

  • A different perspective on media development is here http://sophisticatedfinance.typepad.com/sophisticated_finance/2008/04/technology-effe.html
    Some research by two Harvard professors presents some findings which suggest a different explanation for the history of media

  • Pingback: Nothing new under the sun and all that « PictureTheUK()

  • Martin Owen

    Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave said most of this in 1980- only Toffler said more. Many modern pundits, because they are of the media, focus on communication and entertainment technology. We can expect changes that are much more ingrained in our lives than advertising and entertainment: changes in the way we manage our health, our learning, our play, our work, our manufacturing, our travel and on..

    When Orville and Wilbur took off on in 1903, they had no idea that their actions would result in northern Europeans eating asparagus at Christmas – yet along with the way of life in agricultural communities in Peru and out of town supermarkets in rural Wales – it is a consequence. The full consequences of ICT are to be played out… and it isn’t the media industry that will be key. Newspapers- an essential ingredient in the restructuring of society in the industrial age, are a consequence of industry and Enlightenment not a cause.

    The railroad, electricity generation, internal combustion and tarmacadam have had deeper effects than the television.

    When we get sub $1 ultra-micro-processors, printed and organic electronics and the rest of nano technologies I suspect the world will become unrecognisable in the way the application of steam power changed our physical world – and in a way the HTTP protocol hasn’t. The internet, as Douglas Adams said, is still, by and large, an advertising brochure… and social media increases that effect.

    The best is yet to come.

  • Martin Owen

    Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave said most of this in 1980- only Toffler said more. Many modern pundits, because they are of the media, focus on communication and entertainment technology. We can expect changes that are much more ingrained in our lives than advertising and entertainment: changes in the way we manage our health, our learning, our play, our work, our manufacturing, our travel and on..

    When Orville and Wilbur took off on in 1903, they had no idea that their actions would result in northern Europeans eating asparagus at Christmas – yet along with the way of life in agricultural communities in Peru and out of town supermarkets in rural Wales – it is a consequence. The full consequences of ICT are to be played out… and it isn’t the media industry that will be key. Newspapers- an essential ingredient in the restructuring of society in the industrial age, are a consequence of industry and Enlightenment not a cause.

    The railroad, electricity generation, internal combustion and tarmacadam have had deeper effects than the television.

    When we get sub $1 ultra-micro-processors, printed and organic electronics and the rest of nano technologies I suspect the world will become unrecognisable in the way the application of steam power changed our physical world – and in a way the HTTP protocol hasn’t. The internet, as Douglas Adams said, is still, by and large, an advertising brochure… and social media increases that effect.

    The best is yet to come.

  • nic

    Great comment Martin – and your points are well made. Media is important, but not the be all and end all.

    And I share your excitement about the future.

  • nic

    Great comment Martin – and your points are well made. Media is important, but not the be all and end all.

    And I share your excitement about the future.

  • Hmm. It’s important to distinguish between material progress/change and moral progress/change. All the major shifts (Agricultural, Athenian, Renaissance, Industrial and now Information Revolution) have brought about profound material progress for some but looking over the millennia there’s been bugger all moral progress. The twentieth century was an absolute shocker. Plus ca change.

    However, I realise this blog relates to the material and certainly share optimism on that front for those fortunate
    enough to benefit from it.

  • Hmm. It’s important to distinguish between material progress/change and moral progress/change. All the major shifts (Agricultural, Athenian, Renaissance, Industrial and now Information Revolution) have brought about profound material progress for some but looking over the millennia there’s been bugger all moral progress. The twentieth century was an absolute shocker. Plus ca change.

    However, I realise this blog relates to the material and certainly share optimism on that front for those fortunate
    enough to benefit from it.

  • Martin Owen

    James, you do our times down. Fascism was defeated in 1945, imperial powers left their colonies in the 60’s and 70’s. Mandela did lead a rainbow nation. Women do have the vote. I am not suggesting there isn’t more to do.

    However there is a greater desire for universal provision of health, education and nutrition now than there has probably ever been. We might not have got there, but most of the world wants to head in that direction.

    You may see that as material rather than moral – however what virtue is there in morality if it is not about helping our fellow humans.

    Having had the pleasure of seeing OLPC/OXs in favela schools in Sao Paolo one can determine a powerful link between technology, learning, and a growth of moral purpose- better expressed by Paolo Friere in “Cultural Action for Freedom”.

  • Martin Owen

    James, you do our times down. Fascism was defeated in 1945, imperial powers left their colonies in the 60’s and 70’s. Mandela did lead a rainbow nation. Women do have the vote. I am not suggesting there isn’t more to do.

    However there is a greater desire for universal provision of health, education and nutrition now than there has probably ever been. We might not have got there, but most of the world wants to head in that direction.

    You may see that as material rather than moral – however what virtue is there in morality if it is not about helping our fellow humans.

    Having had the pleasure of seeing OLPC/OXs in favela schools in Sao Paolo one can determine a powerful link between technology, learning, and a growth of moral purpose- better expressed by Paolo Friere in “Cultural Action for Freedom”.

  • Diane G Burrell

    this is an awsome blog

  • Abraham Maki

    this is an awsome blog

  • Abraham Maki

    this is an awsome blog

  • the internet has changed the world i agree.