Friday, 16 November 2012

The techniques of the Information Age define its social outcomes.

The Gutenberg Press: The birth of the Information Age

Some ideas about our current digital media experiences and how they never stand still long enough to devise a history.

by Tom Thorne

When The Information Age took root with printing in the 15th Century it produced the concept of the literate educated generalist. Electric communications and its development into networked digital media after 1990, ensures that no one can ever be an educated generalist ever again. 

The strategic directions of a society that has evolved to a ubiquitous digital communications model are harder to define in the glut of data and information that is produced each nanosecond.

For much of my working life the online electric extensions of the mass media Information Age was at first a promise and then a shabby image of what it could be, and finally it all morphed into the World Wide Web incorporating mass media broadcasting and print into new narrow casting medium capable of producing endless streams of data, information and sometimes knowledge.  

This full fledged Information Age has been a long time coming tied as it is to the invention of  electric and then finally to inexpensive microelectronics and universal software protocols to make a digitally driven Information Age work. It took from 1940 to 1990 to really get rolling.

The Information Age started long before the Electric Age of telegraph and its  important antecedent microelectronics came about in the 1970's  It really began with the development of hand set movable type in the 15th Century. Gutenberg and others invented movable type set in motion an age where content was democratized and vulgate languages began to appear in print and Latin was sidelined as a language of a passé elite. Movable type created versions the Bible in vulgate languages and set in motion the Reformation. It leveled hierarchies of control in the Church and in the state. It probably also set ideas about democracy in motion.

Printing made universal primary education possible. By primary I mean the possibility was created  where anyone could learn to read and write because the low cost school books could be standardized and distributed. The 19th Century McGuffy readers made  primary education happen culminating before the Age of Television began with primary education classic book series such as Fun With Dick and Jane.

At the begiining of printing it became fashionable for kings and nobles to learn to read and write a function usually reserved for scribes since ancient times. For more common folk it took about a 200 years before primary education ideas and its implementation in society began to surface in places like Scotland. Print is a medium than ensures that copies are exact and standardized. This technique gives birth to the idea of standardized primary education.

The spread of printing took 300 years and over that time two major social changes began. The first change was the birth of the periodical and news sheets in the late 17th Century began in earnest. A system that copies easily  becomes a medium for news, a content concept of the print world. It provides an active voice where there was only static status quo before. It is a change element. 

The idea of a periodical means that information is speeding up and needs to be provided in daily periodical dollops rather than in manuscript or printed book form. It is a natural development of movable type. It is a sheet of paper that is here today and gone tomorrow. To make this new development work and really take off the providers of periodicals need readers and a wider audience of readers. It's a chicken and egg situation. Printing periodicals and reading are mutually intertwined events that create change. Only in the Age of  Print, by the 18th Century,  can ideas like primary education and daily newspapers take hold.

When media are used for information and education there is a transformation of perception and learning that is influenced by the medium's presence in the lives of people. In the case of print it all happens slow enough to study. In the digital media world of our times it is all in nanoseconds and its social effects are fleeting and probably quite profound but difficult to grasp long enough to study.

The introduction of printing is easy to see and follow because it took so long to take root and influence society. It provided a literate culture with a sense of history. In fact it resulted in the growth of social science and the development of the scientific method, something that only happens when knowledge is printed, shelved and used as a reference for the culture and then added to over time. 

When electric media are introduced to the media mix a new acceleration of information, education and knowledge takes place. Information and knowledge snowball and grow quickly. It is much more transitory than a book. Sometimes it is here today and gone tomorrow finding no tangible place to become a reference source. In its worst incarnation it becomes a mere sound or video bite. A fragment of the original event. A wisp of information that can never aspire to be history.

When electric communications technology goes digital the acceleration of information and knowledge is so rapid that it creates experts in small fields of study. Strategic goals for society are harder to define and problems harder to solve because there is too much information to process. Very few participants in an electric environment can grasp the general sociological impact and direction of society. In short there are few generalists with enough savvy to really fathom changes wrought by the new digital media bring to society.

However, just as other media have altered society, politics, economics and a created new ways of seeing the human experience, the effects of digital information is so fast and so fleeting that it never creates a trail of coherent information. Much of the traffic on the World Wide Web is transitory with no contextual record that it really existed. It is information like Tweets. Tweets can change opinions and do tasks like turning out votes or crowds in Tahir Square, but it does so without content or depth. It is almost pure form without substance. It rides a nanosecond of time and place.

© Copyright 2012, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.

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