The History of Information
The Age in which we live has quite appropriately been referred to as the Information Age. We live in a time unimaginable just 100 short years ago; a time when we can communicate across the globe in real time via pulses of light; a time when we can send copies of documents to a distant office as we travel on the highway; a time of microwaves, fax machines, advanced medical imaging, cellular and digital phones, pagers, hand-held computers, the internet, and much much more.
Certainly, in many respects, we can look at these times with awe, bewilderment, and excitement. But do we ever stop to view our technological advancements in an historical context? Do we ever ask ourselves what effects these things have, not only on our lives in general, but even our very basic precepts; our concepts of time, information, and purpose? The answer is an emphatic NO. No, we do not.
In fact, because we live in such a fast-paced age, we often fail to realize that these questions even need asking. At one moment we see cachectic children starving in Iraq and within an instant we see a soap commercial. And then we see women in Bosnia crying about seeing their husbands killed or their daughters raped, which of course, is followed by an ad for the next episode of Home Improvement. Subconsciously, this fragments our worldview. We are unaware of what is cause and what is effect. We begin to ask questions of "how" and "what" rather than "why". Ultimately we become ahistorical, rarely noting one event's connection with another.
So how did we get this way? What has transformed us into an ahistorical society? The answer lies in the history of communication media (combined with some corporate and other self-interest groups, but that topic deserves its own volumes).
Traditional cultures were based upon the spoken word. The social construct was such that it revolved around interaction via speaking. Not simply interpersonal relationships, but even societal relationships were based on the spoken word. Speech was the vehicle through which law, religious scripture, history, and art were conveyed. Along with the words, there were intonations, voice inflections, and body language.
With the development of the written word, only a select few were literate. And, with that being the case, only the most important things were transcribed. Religious texts, societal laws, treaties, etc. Religious scripture continued to be committed to memory. And when it was written, it was written in the most eloquent script with ornate pages, often taking hours for scribes to complete. With that came a respect for the written word, the paper it was written on, and even the pen with which it was written.
The written word helped to develop language, in a sense, by adding a structure that was not necessarily always present prior. The construction of paragraphs and entire works which started relatively broad, gradually became more specific, and then finally broadened again.
The development of the printing press took the written word to new heights, and depths. With the printing press, large volumes of written works could be reproduced quicker than by hand. Although the process was still cumbersome. More written works could reach a wider audience. Once moveable type arrived on the scene, a wide audience became wider. Even the range of topics covered increased. Almanacs, manuals, and newspapers became more diffuse.
Though rarely thought of in this Information Age, the telegraph has, perhaps, had the most profound impact on our concept of "information". Essentially what it did was take a small bit of information and transmit it at a great distance in a short period of time. So there are three parts to its import...one, the time. As will be demonstrated later, now that information could be transmitted in shorter time increments, it meant shortening of the patience of the general population. Two, the distance. Now that information could be sent over great distances in shorter periods of time, things that were not previously important, became important. Though I have yet to verify this, I have heard it said that the first transmission across the Atlantic was that a particular Dutchess had the whooping cough. Who cares?! Really. Who cares? Lastly, and most importantly, the size of the information was small. It was a blurb. A small piece of useless information.
With the arrival of radio, the spoken word, as well as the small piece of useless information merged to form the "sound bite". Small bits of information were transferred over great distances via voice. Once commodified, commercials began to creep in and consume the time utilized for any particular program. It quickly became apparent that if the commercials interrupted the radio broadcast, people would be more apt to listen while they awaited the completion of the program.
Then, television. The television took the voice and the sound bite and added images, moving images. Combined with a more aggressive advertising industry, sociologists and psychologists began to study purchasing behavior and advertising techniques. Quick sound bites and abrupt scene changes were found to keep the viewers' attention for longer periods of time. From scene to scene, viewers were kept waiting for what was to come next. All the while, soaking in the commercial messages.
Though media violence, nudity, foul language, and wasting time are reason enough for getting rid of the television, I feel that a far greater impact realized by television is the change in our concept of information. It has become images. Short, flashy images which provoke little thought, if any. And the proof of this is trying to watch a lecture on television. One face on the screen for one hour, talking. Unless we are deeply motivated to hear the topic being discussed, most of us will find our thoughts drifting off to other subjects. Instead, it is frequently interrupted with commercials and scene changes, fragmenting our time into smaller, more palatable bites. And we chop the bites into even smaller bits with the clicking of the remote.
With the above developments in communication media, our world has become increasingly fragmented and disjointed. Our ability to associate what happens in Iraq with what happens in Bosnia gets fractured. We tend to miss the connection between the Cosby Show and our choice of soft drink. Our entire outlook on the world, its movements, its history, its technology, its government, and its purpose have all been altered, dramatically, and for the worse. In part, we owe this to television, the school system, consumerism, and our support of them.
Television, certainly, has had a profound impact on our approach to our everyday world. Physically, conceptually, and emotionally it changes our being. And because things are happening at such an alarming rate, these changes go unnoticed.
Physically, television is made up of abrupt changes in scenes, pictures, and sounds. The abruptness of it all is intentional, to keep our attention. If we continue watching, we are more likely to purchase the products aired on the commercials and in the programs themselves. Not only does this affect our buying habits, but it impacts our attention span.
Conceptually, we are forced to move from one issue to the next, with commercials in between. In a matter of seconds, our thoughts might go from what is happening in Jerusalem to which toppings we want on our pizza. Our thoughts become disorganized and we fail to see order in what is portrayed as chaos. Neil Postman had this to say in his book The Disappearance of Childhood:
Television needs material. And it needs it in a way quite different from other media. Television is not only a pictorial medium, it is a present-centered and speed-of-light medium. The bias and therefore the business of television is to move information, not collect it. Television cannot dwell upon a subject or explore it deeply, an activity for which the static, lineal form of typography is well suited. There may, for example, be fifty books on the history of Argentina, five hundred on childhood, five thousand on the Civil War. If television has anything to do with these subjects, it will do it once, and then move on. This is why television has become the principal generator of what Daniel Boornstin calls the "pseudo-event," by which he means events that are staged for public consumption. The Academy Awards, the Miss America Contest, the "roasts" of celebrities, the Annual Country Music Association Awards, the battles of the network stars, press conferences, and the like exist because of television's need for material, not reality's. Television does not record these events, it creates them. And it does so not because television executives lack imagination but because they have an abundance of it. They know that television creates an insatiable need in its audience for novelty and public disclosure and that the dynamic visual imagery of television is not for the specialist, the researcher, or, indeed, for anyone wishing to practice analytic activity. To use a metaphor favored by Dorothy Singer, Jerome Singer, and Diana Zuckerman, watching television is like attending a party populated by people whom you do not know. Every few seconds you are introduced to a new person as you move through the room. The general effect is one of excitement, but in the end it is hard to remember the names of the guests or what they said or even why they were there. It is of no importance that you do, in any case. Tomorrow there will be another party.
Furthermore, our emotions become labile. The news, for example, is arranged in such a way so as to evoke horror and outrage, most often at the beginning of the program, followed by a lighter segment of "news" after which all of the newscasters joke back and forth with the meterologist.
The effects of television are exacerbated by our own compartmentalization of society. We send our infants and toddlers to daycare, our children to school, and our elders are sent to adult daycare or worse, a nursing home. We and our spouses then head off to separate jobs in our separate cars. Essentially, we segregate ourselves based on age. This has tremendous effects on society. It creates gaps between the generations, thus allowing for profound societo-cultural changes to occur quickly and unnoticed. And if they are noticed, they are interpretted out of context.
The educational system, at least in the United States anyway, functions in a similar fashion. The sciences are taught as completely separate subjects. Chemistry, biology, and physics are taught in different rooms, often in separate grades, and the connections between these sister disciplines are left for the student to make. Historical subjects are selectively emphasized and conveniently labelled. And school bells interrupt the children in the midst of their work, sending the subtle message that none of what they have been working on is of any import. What is important is that we learn how to work...it is called functional literacy. That is, learn enough to earn money, pay your bills, pay your taxes, and purchase goods. Critical thought is left out of the curriculum entirely.
In short, though the advances in communication media may at times be awe inspiring, there is a devastating side to them. Our world has become chopped up and slapped with labels, divorced from context and divorced from history.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, our perception of information is very clearly focused on the "what" and the "how". The "why", however, is often absent. Examples are perhaps the best way of illustrating this point.
When the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, the news coverage spent an inordinate amount of time on the exact goings-on of what color the van was, what the security guard was thinking when he saw the van, what class of explosive was used, etc. Elaborate three dimensional computer-generated images were displayed, zooming in and out, with voice overlay describing what the person looked like and which group was likely the responsible party. This went on ad nauseum. Never was the question asked, "Why would someone do this?" Or, "Why bomb the US embassies? Why not someone else's?" Only how they did it, and what happened.
Why did they do it? I may not know, but at least ask the question. If the question is asked, it may get probed further. If our journalists sought answers to this question as vigorously as they sought the answers of how and what, they might discover a people discontented with US imperialist and oppressive activities overseas. If the American people hear what the US and her allies are perpetrating overseas, they may stand up against it. They may change their vote. They may finally side with the oppressed.
The same basic question can be applied to the October 2000 killing of three Israeli soldiers during the Palestinian uprising. If you recall the event, four soldiers found themselves in Ramallah and were taken into Palestinian police custody. The people broke into the police facility and killed three of the soldiers. Every intricate detail was noted on the news. How they got in, what was said when one of the Palestinians answered the cell phone of one of the soldiers, etc. Never was the question asked, "Why did they do it?" Any free-thinking logical human being would realize that this is the result of war and oppression. The Palestinian people have been suffering through atrocities for over fifty years at the hands of Israel. And, they were not killing children. They killed soldiers...men of war...during war. Furthermore, the "why" question was never pointed at the media itself. Why did the outcry over the death of three Israeli soldiers overshadow the death of over one hundred Palestinian civilians? Were we to answer this question, we might begin to question our source of information.
These same principles can be applied to nearly everything seen on the news. We do not apply them, however, because it is followed by reports of West Nile virus or the most recent election poll.
The question "why?" is something that any parent knows, gets to be more and more difficult as one asks it repeatedly. When your child starts off with, "Why are rainbows that color?" most of us know the answers up to a point, but then it stops. Usually we get out of it by either saying, "Because God made it that way," or "I don't know, why don't we try to find out." Either way, both of these answers are valid and praiseworthy. As communication media has changed, so too has our childhood drive to know. Back then we wanted to know why. Now, all we care about is what and how. Perhaps those are just easier to deal with.
Such is the history of information. We are left with the following: #1 We are an ahistorical society, #2 We focus on the how and what rather than the why, #3 We carry a very fragmented worldview, unable to see the world's trends or their significance in our lives, and #4 We are unaware of (and often do not care about) what is cause and what is effect. So what do we do about it?
I don't know that there is a simple answer. I find it interesting and frustrating to reflect on these things. I get frustrated enough when I hear the news, but even more so when I hear intelligent people simply regurgitating what they heard the night before. Almost as if the media did their thinking for them. So I do not think that there is a simple answer. The problem is too diffuse. And not only that, the very people you tell about these things think that they are thinking for themselves.
We should study history. We should avoid hearsay and gossip. We should realize that television is the largest and most far-reaching source of gossip. We should look at things with a critical eye, and teach our children to do the same. Occasionally, we should take another position and see if we can defend it. Repeatedly ask why...as a child would. We should ask ourselves, what is cause and what is effect. And, of course, we should always question the source.
Our understanding of information has changed. We should always ask ourselves what we are going to do with any particular piece of information. Allah knows best.
Web Author: Abu Aasiya