Different Medium: Different Society

Just a brief glance at the history of communications mediums should make it clear that a new medium very quickly creates a new society. When writing became widespread, people in the oral culture were wary of the changes it would entail. People could rely on texts, allowing their capacity for memorization to weaken. Furthermore, unlike a person who can argue a point and change his or her opinion, a book is in a state of stasis, and in most circumstances does not allow the reader to engage the author. Writing allowed society to become more organized and to pass on information more quickly and accurately.

The invention of the printing press ushered in the true supremacy of texts. Now that it was possible to make multiple copies of a work, quickly and cheaply, the book became the major tool of the scholar. The book individualized society by allowing people to access vast stores of information without need of human contact.

In recent times, the telephone has allowed people to communicate quickly and over vast distances, speeding up the rate of all societal interactions. Radio, TV, film, and advances in publishing have created a culture that is less satisfied with straight written texts. These technologies have changed the way people view the acquisition of information. Visual and oral learning have taken on revitalized importance. According to research cited in Communications Graphics, "studies indicate that people generally remember:

10% of what they read
20% of what they hear
30% of what they see
50% of what they hear and see
70% of what they say
90% of what they say as they do a thing"
This indicates that the best you can expect to do for a passive learner is 50%, which is achieved when multimedia is utilized. It should come as no surprise that society is moving towards communication that humans are best adapted for.

The question becomes, how is computer communication a different medium? Hiltz and Turoff in The Network Nation point out that such communication

does not require geographical coordinates of participants
does not require temporal coordination of participants
can involve very large groups of interacting participants
allows fast transmission
allows fast (reading speed) reception
has an integrated memory with sophisticated retrieval capability
can easily transform its content into other forms (for example, print)
has a dynamic and adaptable structure
Hypermedia and the WWW takes advantage of all of these traits. The WWW allows anyone to electronically publish information in all other communications mediums (audio, video, text), and make it instantly and cheaply available to people throughout the world. This is a major shift from the publication paradigm that is currently the case throughout the industrialized world, where a limited number of people control the flow of information.

Unlike television, with it's limited number of broadcasters, there is no limit to the amount of information that can be made available on the web. The web is really closest to a vast library of information that is interlinked and easily searchable. When a colleague or I want to look for information about anything, a company, a musical band, an event, the first place we look is the web. It's convenient, fast, and there is already a vast amount of content that is available. Keep in mind that all of that content has been for the most part been put up in three years. The next decade will see exponential increases in both the speed of information transfer and the amount and type of information that is transferrable. Videophones and movies-on-demand will become a reality. This will change the way the entire world interacts with information.

Interact is a key word, as well, because unlike television and radio, where people are passive receivers of information, the web is highly interactive. This will increase learning, and allow people to get the kind of information they really want and need, rather than being subjected to mass medium that cater to the lowest common denominator.

Electronic information is very easy to copy, which will lead to a major restructuring and possible destruction of copyright law. The hacker's credo has long been "Information wants to be free," and this edict seems to hold true. As the rate of information dissemination rises, I believe that we'll see an increase in the role of the editor. Money will be made by people able to sort through the vast amounts of information and distill the best parts of it. This information will not be valuable for long, though, as new information enters and moves throughout the system and makes the old editing obsolete.

So, how will the World Wide Web change society? It will cause the rate and types of information that members of the society shuffles around to increase. It will allow people to communicate with each other more quickly and easily. It will change the role of information from individual to connected, and from objective to subjective. It will challenge the notions of originality, ownership, and copyright. Society will truly take on many aspects of postmodern thought. Society will decentralize, just as the network is decentralized, and culture will move back towards notions of the oral and tribal. Subjects will become connected and will no longer allow encapsulation. Information will become evolutionary, like language, and texts will never be complete...

Go back to hypertext, or up to the introduction.

Chris Boraski