Blown To Bits

The Paradox of Better Communication Technology

Monday, August 18th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Off at my summer home on a mountain lake, I am trying to read about anything but bits. So I’ve read two good books — Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jules Tygiel’s Past Time. A history of secularism in America and a history of baseball. Unaccountably, each has a paragraph about the social consequences of improvements in communication technology. And the two paragraphs make closely related points. And the same issues are with us today, and relevant to the debates about whether the Internet can be a democratizing technology, what influence private carriers have over public understanding of the truth, and whether the unlimited availability of information will mean that we will in the end become more isolated through our ability to pick and choose the reality we wish to believe.

Jacoby discusses the influence of early radio on the secularism movement.

The farmers who rode fifty miles across the prairie to hear [famous agnostic orator Robert] Ingersoll in the 1890s were likely to be found in their own living rooms, listening to their own radios, in the 1920s — and radio sponsors did not spend their money to ¬†promote attacks on the God of the Bible. Freethought ideals did survive the disappearance of the freethought movement, but — unlike religious evangelism — they were ill suited, because of their emphasis on facts rather than emotions, to the new mass communications media. (p. 263)

Tygiel talks about how radio spelled the end of public scoreboards in cities, where crowds used to gather to see the telegraphed play-by-play of baseball games posted for public view.

The radio had, in a very important sense, democratized major league baseball, transmitting a more intimate sense of being at the game to millions who could never attend. Yet the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the communal experience with a more isolated one. Radio made baseball, more than ever, a national sport, but in a context far removed from earlier meanings of that term. (p. 73)

One of the big points of our book is that the digital explosion is not inevitably either good or bad. More capacity to communicate information does not automatically lead to greater enlightenment and greater democratic empowerment. The future depends on who has the power to control the communication media and how they use it. It’s important for us all to realize that nothing is inevitable — we need to understand, and to watch, what may seem to be struggles over obscure technical points, because the way the future will look may depend on choices being made today.

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