How Technology Has, Literally, Changed Everything — And How To Move Forward
Living in today’s vast yet deeply interconnected world, it is not often we stop to absorb the idea that much of what we do today would be unheard of in the past. It’s even hard to imagine that the inception of mobile technology is a relatively new phenomenon, given the fact that most people have a smartphone and rely on it for communication, work, and more. We often see technological developments as products of a society, created to fit the needs of an ever-developing world, but would it be more accurate to view it the other way around — that dominant communication technologies and strategies, from the development of the first writing system to the smartphone, have actually changed how society operates?
The idea that forms of media in themselves hold inherent messaging and are able to create new behaviors, attitudes, and organizations in society, is part of a niche of media and communication studies known as medium theory, and its core argument can be observed when looking at historical shifts in societies as compared to the dominant communication strategies at these points in time. In the essay Media evolution and cultural change (2008), Joshua Meyrowitz draws upon decades of historical and sociological study in order to make the case that changing forms of communication have great impact on a society’s structures and behavior. To illustrate this concept, Meyrowitz divides the known history of the world into four temporal phases based upon the dominant and emerging communication strategies at each time — traditional oral cultures, the traditional scribal phase, modern print culture, and postmodern global electronic culture — noting how technological changes coincide with these greater historical and societal shifts. Putting the medium at the forefront of our minds when looking at greater cultural changes can help us better understand how and why these changes came about — and potentially help us to understand how the contemporary technologies we develop and use have the potential to literally shape our world.
The first era defined by Meyrowitz is the phase of traditional oral cultures. This encapsulates the earliest societies we can imagine, where techniques of writing are absent, and all communication takes place orally. One can imagine how a lack of writing could shift a society’s characteristics and practices — because all communication required physical co-presence of participants, communities were kept small, tight-knit, and highly localized, and because all information had to be stored in memory, people tended to speak in ways that facilitated memorization (such as in rhymes or songs). In these societies, elders tended to hold the most social power due to their extensive experience and memories. Besides that, there was little in the way of social organization, and people were seen as generally equal.
The emergence of writing would ultimately force larger changes to the structure of oral societies. Importantly to our question of how technology shapes society, these new skills of reading and writing (which at this time were reserved for religious officials and monarchs) became traits by which persons could now be socially organized, creating a new social hierarchy with the literate afforded the highest authority. Besides sparking this redistribution of power, the practice of writing also changed how people behaved within society in ways that were previously not possible. By freeing people from the intellectual boundaries of what they could remember, new practices such as record-keeping, complex planning, and pursuing specialized knowledge formed and became more common. It is appropriate that Soha (2013) and others characterize this time period as the ‘Civilizing World’, as these practices and the foundational knowledge born out of it served as an important intellectual bridge to the world we now know.
But before long, the civilizing world was once again thrown into a period of fast and extreme growth with the emergence of one invention: the printing press. The printing press allowed for written works to be produced at a lower cost and a much faster pace than could be done by hand, enabling the first instances of mass communication. Whereas written information would previously be bound to a small area, printing press technology allowed for the same information to travel across an entire nation. In his 1985 documentary A Matter of Fact: Printing Transforms Knowledge, James Burke discusses the greater impact of mass communication on medieval societies. He argues that printing solidified the borders and languages of European nations, creating them as we know them today, by capturing and standardizing national languages in books and dictionaries. He also cites a post-printing press world as one out of which modern science and intellectualism were created, as knowledge was standardized and more specialized areas of expertise could be documented.
All of this change also sparked changes in how medieval societies themselves were organized. The emergence of mass communication strategies placed a great deal of power in the hands of those who were able to control the information flow. This power generally fell to monarchies and the largest institutions, like the Catholic Church (which also gained prominence and legitimization as an institution through the spread of printing), but ‘thinkers’ such as philosophers and scientists also had the opportunity to share their more intellectual gospel with the world. Printing also created more complex social hierarchies and a greater spread of inequality, as the skills of reading and writing became more widespread yet many remained illiterate. This time period saw the rise of nationalism and national identity, as experiences (such as news events) became standardized and shared through mass media. This era, marked by the emergence of the printing press and extending to the development of later mass communication technologies including radio, film, and television, is now known as the modern era of communication.
In the shifts from traditional oral society, the civilizing world and emergence of the written word, and the rise of the modern era with the invention of the printing press, certain patterns in society’s organizations, practices, and characteristics can be observed as directly resulting from the change in dominant communication strategies. One such pattern is a shift from very collectivist and communal attitudes to more individualist ones, as the spread and increased accessibility of writing and print allowed people to pursue, research, and declare their own intellectual interests. Another observable shift is a general increase in complexity when it comes to social role and hierarchy. In oral societies, power and responsibility were essentially equal amongst community members, but the emergence of writing systems allowed for more specialized skills and knowledge to shine through, and for people to be socially organized in new ways as new skills became standard. Finally and perhaps most importantly, between these phases we can observe an important change in the type and quantity of information being exchanged. We don’t have a lot of specific knowledge about the daily goings-on in oral societies (besides, ironically, what of it could be written down), but given the fact that people had to rely on their memories, we can see why intellectual progress was slower and more limited. The creation, and later standardization, of a writing system allowed for more specialized knowledge to be shared, and more of it — including the emergence of many fields of study that continue to be pursued today.
All of this historical background is important, but how much impact has developing communication technology had on our current world? According to Meyrowitz, we now live in an era of postmodern global electronic culture marked by the development of personal computers and the internet. In the current era, information is more diverse and persistent than ever, lasting over both time and space. Electronic culture also attempts to push back against some of the inequalities created by printing culture by affording members greater access to information and capabilities to communicate themselves. However, this explosion in the quantity of information available online, as well as the amount of people contributing to the global conversation, has arguably created an information overload where misinformation has become a concerning obstacle to knowledge. This is relevant especially to our current political climate, where mis- and dis-information pose real threats both to public discourse and to the foundations of our democracy.
Technological developments in recent years have also had profound impact on and consequences for our social behaviors and interactions with the physical world. Mobile technology puts the world at our fingertips (a definite positive during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which physical gatherings are discouraged), but also makes it difficult or impossible to “tune out” from the world and give our mental health a break. Twenge (2017) reports that increased screen time coincides with a higher likelihood of experiencing depression, and that today’s teens (dubbed iGen) are less likely to go out frequently without their parents, suggesting that our dependence on smartphones might actually cause us to feel more isolated — both physically and mentally. This isn’t to say that the global network we now live in is a bad thing in any sense, but to encourage us to consider how technology itself is shaping the world we live in. We are living in a period of rapid technological growth and change with no signs of stopping — so rather than going backwards to a time without Internet and smartphones, it’s time to mobilize (literally) and reframe the conversation around how technology can be made or changed to best support all areas of intellectual, mental, and social well-being. 🌟