Thursday, June 23, 2005

How Technological Innovation induces Social Change: Television

Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter has a wonderful discussion of the way in which the development of ICT is affecting popular culture and ultimately people’s intelligence. The discussion of television is especially good. The following is based on his insights. (By the way, check out Johnson's blog. He writes well there too!)

Television of course is more than a half century old, and was revolutionized by the innovation of color TV. Audiences, already trained by their experiences with movies and radio, have also learned from their experience with television.

Technological innovation that spurred the development of cable networks changed television by greatly increasing the choice available to viewers. The large number of channels created a huge demand for content. Much of this was satisfied by recycling programs which were originally created for the major networks.

Inventions such as VCRs, TiVo, and DVDs allowed people not only to watch materials at times other than their original broadcasts, but also to replay materials. People started to watch the same programs many times, and to be able to analyze them in some depth.

The Internet, and especially the World Wide Web, allowed people to share experience with TV programs, and to develop elaborate tools to help understand programs.

The market changed. Profits came increasingly from syndication of programs and from sales of copies of programs to be played through home VCR and DVD players.

Johnson points out that audiences then demanded more complex shows and series, with more sophisticated narrative techniques and devices. Producers, in order to profit from the demand, began to produce more complex shows. Corporations began to market them via the broadcast networks, cable TV, and recordings.

The popular culture changed, with reality TV, complex dramas, and heavily nuanced and referential programs (like the Simpsons) replacing the earlier fare. Moreover, people talk about new things, not to mention that they communicate via the Internet in new ways about new things.

Of course, this chain of events depends on the intrinsic interest people have in seeing stories unfold in “living color”. It also depends on the willingness people have to deal with complex stories. But Johnson points out, that people have also learned the conventions of video story telling, and have learned through experience to deal with more complex narratives using fewer queues and signposts. Indeed, Johnson suggests that people in the audience have learned to learn in new ways and to learn more quickly. He suggests that this is part of the explanation of the Flynn effect – a long term increase in the measured IQ of the population in the United States.

Marshal McLuhan pointed out long ago that the more rapid rates of technological change we experience today (as compared with the past) makes it easier to perceive the social and psychological impacts of technological innovations. Johnson’s analysis of video games, television, and the Internet illustrates McLuhan’s point. Of course, once Johnson has shown the process, it is easier for the rest of us to see the trends.

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