Ten years ago, at the turn of the millennium, my family sat down and made a list of predictions. We predicted what the world would look like in one decade. Now, here we are, 2010. I don’t know what happened to that list. I’m sure we listed things like “there will be something called the ‘war on terror’” and “a black man will be in the White House.” In an oral culture, lists don’t exist and the past is subservient to the present, so I’ll pretend such is the case now and say that, yes, we knew this all along.
One prediciton that did make the list was that the television and the Internet would be merged. Now, we aren’t quite there yet, but the trajectory is certainly on course. (Well, even if history isn’t subservient to the present, the future still can be.)
It seems that the Internet will likely subsume everything. “The electric age,” McLuhan said in 1960, “may appear to some to turn the globe itself into a single computer.” Fifty years later, the future certainly seems subservient to that claim.
This intermingling of technologies is really like that point along a road where a two-lane highway becomes a four-lane expressway, or where a gravel road turns to asphalt. We look back and it all seems so antiquated. We look ahead and it all seems so smooth. At that moment, we see both roads as they are. We are not yet used to the paved road, but it is much more capable of delivering what we wanted. We are not yet used to the limited U-turns on a divided highway, but it certainly moves faster in either direction.
McLuhan spoke of this transition too. He spoke of the way we could see both roads in a moment of clarity before we acclimated to the new one. There have been numerous points in history when this has happened. When Greek oral culture became a literate one, Plato was writing, but he was using dialogue to structure his writing. This seems a bit strange to us today for philosophy, but he hadn’t transitioned away from oral dialogue as a format yet. Writing would eventually become a one-way conversation, a lecture, an extended speech of sorts (in oral parlance). But this transition wouldn’t happen until we thought in writing instead of speaking. (Indeed, this transition was not complete until sometime after Jane Austen, who still referred to her “dear reader.”)
The same sort of transition occurred during the Renaissance. In a BBC interview, McLuhan points this out. “When print was new, it flooded the Renaissance with medieval materials.” That is, the new printing press was publishing literature born in the old order, during a time when everything was still written by hand. I’ve heard that this was mostly the case up until the end of the 18th century. Publishing primarily consisted of old books, not new ones.
And again, “when the mechanical technology and later on the industrial was new, it surrounded the old agrarian world.” I was reflecting with a friend recently about how at one time, the family business was primarily farming. And as a family business, every able hand was put to work. This meant 6-, 8-, and 10-year-olds would be in the fields working alongside their parents and siblings.
Thus, when the industrial revolution transformed the agrarian economy, the idea of having children working in factories made sense. But once this transition had been made and there was enough distance to divorce child labor from the family farm, people like Dickens saw it in a new light. It was an injustice.
These same sorts of transitions occurred from radio to television, where the radio variety show was put on TV. Then at some point, people realized, “We can do way more than have a televised variety show!”
And in the same way, we’re in a similar transition now, as TV gives way to the Internet. And even more as the Internet gives way to new mobile technology. We have things like blogging and Facebook and Twitter and Youtube, where we do all the things we did before the Internet, but now we do them on the Internet. But at some point not too long from now—maybe just another decade—we’ll be far enough down the information superhighway that we’ll look around and say, “We can do way more than watch TV on the Internet!” It will be gradual, and it will make sense to many when we get there. And it will seem like the past is subservient to the present, and we’ll wonder why we ever had it any other way.