Experts estimate that the first form of organized communication originated sometime around 3500 B.C. with the creation of the syllable Phoenician alphabet. 2600 years later, with the invention of the primitive Chinese postal service, this creation of language transformed from something used to communicate with a neighbor into something that connected distances – an occurrence very similar to the one we’ve seen in just the past two centuries. In roughly five and a half millennia, the human race has rapidly transformed the ways it communicates and the way it reacts to the objects that facilitate such.
1455: Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press. Hailed as one of the most important singular inventions in human history, it revolutionized human communication. Not because it was made of metal. Not because it was “cool”. But because it affected the entire social structure of every modern civilization after that point. The printing press allowed not just mass production of political or poetic material, it increased supply. And, as basic economics show, demand goes down with supply goes up. This invention broke not only the cycle of nonexistent education for those who were not of the most royal bloodline, it made texts available in financial terms. Which snowballs into an increased demand for literacy. Which snowballs into political awareness – and choice. Mass social and economic revolutions, and even the mere aches of a poor poet’s heart were now suddenly available, and we were ready and waiting.
It is from this point on that the interest in and invention of communication technology increased exponentially across time. Newspapers, typewriters, telegraphs, phonographs, photographs, telephones, movies, radios, televisions, fax machines, computers, then better computers, then iPods and iPhones and tablets and laptops and netbooks and even just social media; they all proceed one another in intrinsic technology and in societal demand.
Over the past half century, especially with the mass production and consumer purchase of the television, political awareness, and unrest, has exploded. From the televised debate between JFK and Richard Nixon to the footage of the Vietnam War, households across America were no longer left to imagining national and world events, but could instead see them – really feel them – which became, as we know today, an incredible advantage to business, advertisers, and political and social activists alike.
As quoted from an article written by William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, he channels the American sociologist Daniel Bell in saying that “information [is] the defining resource of a new ‘post-industrial’ phase of economic development, just as raw materials were the core resource of the agricultural society and energy of the industrial society.” Television, and its transformations into the video-rich internet sites of YouTube and Vimeo, has provided the public with so much information that it not only defines us, it drives us, consumes us, and almost exhausts us.
Transformations in communication technology abound with ingenuity, critical thought, and sheer willingness to be different. But what we must remember is that transformations do not come easy, and they do not always produce what we expect. We have come a long way since 3500 B.C., but we still have a long way to go before we have a firm handle on how to address the social issues that arise from these transformations.