Sunday, 24 January 2010

New media.

This interview with Sam Cavender should be required reading for anyone involved in church and communication. I had a good laugh over some geek jokes, too.

Nick Baines has some comments on the Pope's recent speech which encouraged priests to blog, among other things.

I think of the internet a little differently than some people might. I am old enough to remember a time when I did not have a computer, and when most people I knew had no internet access. I can remember not knowing what the internet was. I can remember going to the library and using a card catalogue to look things up, making telephone calls to sort out social arrangements, ordering things from paper catalogues and waiting a month for them to arrive.

But I am young enough that looking things up online is second nature to me, and that living my life and doing my work without internet access seems like an impossibly limiting idea. It would just be so inconvenient! I would spend a lot more time looking for information and a lot less time getting on with my work.

The internet has been important to me socially for over a decade; long before Facebook and Twitter were around, I was on IRC channels and bulletin boards. I had an online diary before weblogs (originally links with commentary) really existed, and over half my current friends are people with whom my primary contact was initially online.

The technology to make all of this possible is new, but I don't think the concepts are all that new. I think of all of this as a sort of extension of written language: it's what happens when you take easy printing (so easy, even I can learn to type!) with easy and good information transfer technology.

This is my ignorant, non-historian's understanding of things. It isn't so much an accurate timeline as a conceptual one; progress in different areas has happened at different rates.

In a pre-literate (or certainly pre-literary) age, information would have to be spread orally and aurally, for the most part. If you wanted to know something you had to ask someone. In a world where most people couldn't read and write, that meant you had to get at least within shouting distance. And so to really get a feel for what your community was like, and what was going on, you had to take lots of different bits of information, remember them, evaluate their reliability, and synthesize them. Of course there were always people who could and would manipulate the information they gave out, to their advantage and possibly to the detriment of others. Oh, there was some more long-distance information -- signalling drums and all that -- but mostly, you had to be there.

Writing has changed that. Suddenly you can write something down for later. Your internal memory is not your only record. You can ask someone to write a contract, to make a record of their words.

That's new media.

But if not many people can read and write, it isn't very useful to do it... you might be better off hunting, or planting potatoes, or whatever. So you ended up with a class of people who could read and write, and would have access to much better information. As before, some would use that to the detriment of others and some would not. You might have a town crier who would read the news every night, or you might not. You might have clergy or politicians who could read and write; the literacy of ordinary folk would be, I imagine, variable.

The more people can read and write, the more information is available to those who can read, and the more useful it is to learn... but as any of you who have written letters by hand will appreciate, if there is only one copy of the information and it gets lost, it might have been better to commit it to memory, or make a second copy. That's labour-intensive, and it's expensive if you're writing on sheepskins. But people aren't stupid, and for the most part if they see an advantage in learning to read they'll try to do it.

Fast-forward to deadtree paper and to the printing press. Suddenly, information doesn't have to be copied down by hand. Suddenly you can teach a lot more people to read, because you have the materials to do it, and then you can print something quickly that they can all read and be influenced by.

That's new media.

There's money to be made in running a press and soon they're everywhere... but the money to pay to have something printed isn't so easy to come by, so those who have money and skills get to decide what people are reading. Things only get printed in multiple copies if it's worth the risk that the copies don't sell, or if they're very important. Eventually you get vanity publishing starting to happen among those who can afford it. Literacy is rising but there are still people who simply don't have time to read much or write much. And distribution of printed material is still expensive: paper isn't lightweight, and once it gets to its destination there is no guarantee your intended target will read it.

Further advances bring the ability to transmit sound to anyone with suitable receiving equipment. The increasing division of labour brought by the industrial revolution means that producing radio receivers can be done reasonably cheaply by mass manufacturing. You can bypass literacy now, to an extent: radio is an audio format. People are listening. If you can buy the airtime you can get your message across to huge numbers of people, all simultaneously. Television follows suit; it's visual, and so harder to slot into daily life while doing other work, but the principle of simultaneous broadcast is the same.

That's new media.

Of course, buying the airtime isn't all that cheap. And live broadcast is not always straightforward... soon enough there are recordings. Instead of having to perform something live every time it's performed you can record it instead, and broadcast it multiple times. Soon enough people have devices to play back recorded media, too, whenever they want. It keeps getting cheaper and easier, the middle-class keeps growing, and you have households with a huge variety of communication available: printed matter, tapes, videocassettes, radios, televisions. Letters from your sister-in-law, newspapers, textbooks, sheet music, novels, things to listen to while you run, while you eat, things to watch with your family, pornography, junk mail. So much information at your fingertips!

That's new media.

But most of that is still broadcast-oriented. You can write a letter back to your sister-in-law, and you can write a letter to the editor of your newspaper, but the latter might not get printed: the owners of the means of publishing are in control of that. The vast majority of people, now that there is so much out there, are consuming more media than they produce.

Technology, however, is getting cheaper. Soon you can photocopy a little essay you wrote, or a bunch of short stories, and post them to friends cheaply. Soon you can record your toddler's birthday party on videocassette, get a copy made by your media junkie friend, and send it to the grandparents who couldn't be there in person. Soon you can put a small recording device in your boot at a concert and make copies for other fans.

The fax machine comes along and you don't have to wait for the postal service any more. Soon fax machines are near-defunct as any listed number attracts huge amounts of rubbish advertising and something even better is born: e-mail. Now you can just type straight to your sister-in-law, your business associates. It isn't long until we're in the heady world of mailing lists, bulletin boards, websites. The entry barrier is still high but it's falling all the time and the Internet is getting more and more participatory.

Broadcasting doesn't matter so much any more.

I think that's the thing about "new media" that most stalwarts of traditional media miss. I don't want to read a news report I can't reply to, asking why something wasn't looked up in more detail or examining the wider implications of the story (or perhaps the narrower ones, if I'm looking at how my local community can respond to an interntional event). I don't want to take a sermon seriously if you don't at least show yourself willing to take some questions from the floor. I do listen to music but I create it, too. I do read books but I write, too. I'll probably never be considered a great composer; I'll certainly never be considered a great writer. But I do have something to say, and I'm going to say it. Only now I can say it, instead of to people living in my village or my immediate family, to whoever in the world wants to listen. It isn't just the people with enough money to try and make a return on their investment any more and, though access to the required technology in the developing world is not as readily available as here it is catching up -- look at Twitter and Iran, look at e-mailed reports out of Haiti. More and more and more people have a voice. Word of mouth is now a global phenomenon. There are moves to regulate this, but I think inevitably they will fail.

Out of that cacophony, no human can follow everything. I cannot monitor six billion trains of thought and expect to pick out the ones that bear some message for me, some meaning. But I can follow some, perhaps some nobody else follows the way that I would. I can listen and read and think and learn. I can give voice to my agreement or objections. I can receive and I can repeat, receive, repeat, and if everyone else does the same, we get some idea of our common interests, our common values, our common humanity. Through the waves that zip through the air to connect our words, our pictures, our songs, we can get some idea of our interconnectedness. Through our communication we can get some idea of our being in community, our communion with one another.

That's new media.


Ernest said...


I actually think that your “non-historian” view of the development of media is pretty well one, most would relate to, depending on their age and circumstances. I for one was trained in the military as a Clerk in the 1960's before even copiers or faxes or the like, and recall having to produce letters with distributions of dozens, via the humble stencil and the silk screen, single page duplicator.

The need to produce accurate typed documents, soon gave someone with a limited secondary education, a real life introduction to spelling, grammar etc. As one mistake required labour intensive reproduction – in those days, those signing letters, expected 100 accuracy and would not allow anything to go out with any mistakes.

This sort of discipline, from age 17 onwards stood me in good stead later in my career, when still without formal education, I was in a position to write many reports and documents on behalf of some with University Degrees, who did not have the time or could not articulate themselves in writing in a way that was concise and to the point. Which in the Military, is one of the tenets of official documents.

In today's internet communications, of course, you see many misspellings and evidence of text speak, which is a symptom of the ongoing development of culture and language combined with access to technology which makes information or news instant. Some have made it into the Oxford Dictionaries, where presumably they will be preserved for ever.

So in the last 43 years, I have gone from the 'stone age' in technology terms to today, being probably only a semi-literate user of the technology which makes our lives simpler, but more complicated (and getting more daily). I must say, I enjoy using it, but sometimes wish we could slow down a little and let things 'bed in' but that is not a practical aspiration.

I bought a new mobile in September 2009, and it was immediately obsolete, with advances in technology virtually on an hourly basis being announced. I will hold onto it, as it might be a museum piece before long!

When I retired from the Army, in recognition of my training and all I had been qualified to do, I achieved a level 7 qualification – at Masters Degree level in Leadership and Management. Of course, having retired, it is not much real use to me? Probably, the virtual equivalent of the Gold Watch of the old days!

it's margaret said...

Well, yeah.... !
Glad to see you back.
(Isn't that a funny thing to say in print, given that I have never seen you. Media has changed, but our language has not. Much.)


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