At certain critical moments in our collective history, technologies arise that completely redefine the way that we communicate with one another. Communication is the fiber that holds our society together- it permeates the barrier of individuality and enables us to work together towards common goals. Communication shapes our society, and whenever communication is fundamentally altered by technological advances, society is altered in turn.
Let’s take a moment to think back about a few of these critical moments. Prior to the invention of written language, our communication was limited to face-to-face interaction. Oral history was the only connection we had to our past, and could be a tremendously unreliable resource. Our memories are fragile compared to the strength of stories ‘set in stone.’ The invention of the written world allowed us to share our experiences with future generations, who used these writings as a foundation to build their own intellect upon. Advancement is dependent on recorded information.
Fast-forward to another world-changing development. The invention of movable type and the printing press. Prior to this technological advance, literacy was restricted to those who could afford to be educated. Books were precious artifacts, hand-copied by human scribes, and their distribution was extremely limited. Even having a personal copy of the bible was a luxury, and the masses were kept from developing literacy by the scarcity of the medium.
The printing press changed everything. Suddenly, books could be mass produced and distributed across the population. This accessibility led to an explosion of literacy and creativity- the written word had been democratized. More and more people could learn to read and could therefore communicate with each other through that medium. Communication lets us share our ideas with each other- and ideas are what change our world.
So how important is communication to our evolution as a society? It’s completely intertwined, and entirely inseparable. Our mediums for communication, Harold Innis argued, “evolv[ed] in tandem with shifts in political and economic systems, and by extension, systems of power.” Those systems are the framework for our society- which could not exist as it does without the connective fiber of communication.
Let’s breeze by a few milestones- the mail, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and then television- and enter into the most efficient era of communication thus far- the internet. If communication is the fiber that unites our society, the exponential increase in connection that the internet enables exponentially strengthens those ties. We are no longer limited to our physical borders, and ideas can instantly spread across the entire globe. The cables, satellites, and cell towers are the neurons that our collective mind depends upon. It’s that collective mind that puts the collective memory of the world at our fingertips, and allows us to instantaneously access distant information.
The most recent shift in communication tools is even more powerful than interconnected computers. Smartphones have become ubiquitous enough that the majority of Americans have one in their pocket. As noted in a Forbes article penned by Mark Rogowsky, “ As popular as smartphones are overall, for young people, they’re nearly essential. In the 18-34 demographic, penetration is 80% and the limiting factor is mostly money. For those earning $75,000 and up, 90% have a smartphone already.” These devices come with cameras, and apps that allow us to share photographs and videos with each other in real time. For the first time in history, we can communicate fluidly, peer to peer, with visual media.
The medium of visual communication was once reserved for those who could afford expensive cameras and education in tedious chemical processes. Now 90% of young Americans have the tools for instant visual communication- like the printing press, the smartphone has democratized a medium of communication, ushering in an era of unprecedented creative growth. Harold Innis postulated that this shift did indeed start with the printing press, noting that ,“The discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear.” Smartphone technology- along with the growing bandwidth of our networks- has further strengthened that domination.
Our civilization is exponentially adopting visual communication- our fluency continuously grows. Since our society evolves in tandem with our mediums of communication, the rise of instantaneous visual dialogue will forever change our lives, our industries, and our world.