September 14, 2013

On Small Changes

Democracy via Newspaper

Before newspapers, people could (and did) distribute hand-written bulletins. In fact, the only major advantage of newspapers was the volume that could be produced. The sorts of things that could be written about didn't change, the labor-intensive means of distribution were the same. And yet, this small change may have been enough to make the rise of democratic nation-states possible. Elihu Katz summarizes this argument (as made by Gabriel Tarde):
But Tarde takes a further step in this role, in asserting that the newspaper overthrew the monarchy. His argument is based on the idea that only the king — the representative public sphere — had had knowledge of what was going on in the various villages and regions of his realm; he had spies and bureaucrats to tell him, and he was in no special hurry to let Village A find out what Village B was thinking. The newspaper did exactly this and thereby undermined the king, says Tarde: it made him redundant. (Katz, 2000, p. 126)
The claim is that the king was in a position to bridge structural holes, and to decide how and when to distribute what information between villages. This information asymmetry provided power and control, and when newspapers removed some of that asymmetry, the monarchy was too weak to survive.

Similar claims have been made about the power of technologies to alter societies. For example, Eisenstein's description of the printing press or Putnam's argument that TV killed socializing.

My point is not to discuss the merit of any of these arguments (although I think all 3 are fascinating and compelling). However, I think that the underlying theme behind them is important and interesting: Changes in communication technologies have subtle effects on the way we see each other, and the way we see the world. And these subtle changes can make a huge difference in the way we choose to work, play, and govern ourselves.

? Via The Internet

My next question, naturally, is what aspects of the Internet (if any) have the potential to have these sorts of long-term impacts (with the caveat that by their nature these changes are hard to see when you are in the midst of them)?

Some ideas:

  • Global information and communication → Weakening of Nationalism → Less wars 
  • Filter Bubbles → Strengthening of Zealots → More wars 
  • EBay → Temporary view of posession → Collaborative Consumption → Weakening of capitalism/consumerism → ? 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance (by states and others) → Distrust of government 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance (by states and others) → Less crime 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance by algorithms → Less crime? 

What else? Are some big effects already occurring?

Katz, E. (2000). Media multiplication and social segmentation. Departmental Papers (ASC), 161.