Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Thoughts on technology and the evolution of political, cultural, social and religious forms (Part I)

New technologies create new forms of communication and new media. Language, writing, the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, the telegraph and telephone, film, radio, television, fax, email, cell phones, the internet in general and now social networks and robots, all make different forms of communication possible and have led, or are leading, to significant social, cultural and political changes.

Marshall McLuhan pointed out that "the medium changes the message." Consider presenting the traditional account of Buddha Shakyamuni encountering old age, illness and death up to his awakening. Imagine this story presented as a novel, a short story, a film,  an opera, a television series, a monologue, a play, a graphic novel, a YouTube video or as a tweet. Each medium emphasizes certain elements and downplays others, and the result is a different message in each case.

Each new medium  also creates a new form of interaction. For example, writing enabled personal and cultural histories to be retained without reliance on human memory. With the invention of paper, they could be retained indefinitely. With the invention of printing, they could be distributed widely and become part of the cultural heritage. The new form of interaction often arises in unexpected and unforeseen ways, such as the immediate distribution of photos and videos through cell phones or the tracking of new trends by hashtags in Twitter.

These new uses lead to different kinds of relationships and new forms of intimacy and solitude, as Sherry Turkle describes in Alone Together. They also lead to new social forms. For instance, the telephone enables people to talk with each other even though they are physically separate. Because, communication is limited to voice, body language and other nuances are limited or eliminated by the medium. Thus, people who communicate by telephone may have a very different relationship compared to when they are conversing in person. Email, of course, takes disembodied communication a step further: mass emails are possible and communication in widespread communities is easy. Email and texting also change the way phones are used. One is now more likely to set up a phone meeting via email than call someone out of the blue.

Part 2