Sunday, June 26, 2011

I recently posted a comment on a specific point in A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet by Michael Poe. This post deals more fully with the first chapter of that book.

Poe takes off from Marshall McLuhan's idea that "the medium is the message" from his landmark book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Poe, in his introduction dismisses quickly the contributions of a number of previous authors, and then goes on to suggest his own theoretical framework for consideration of the impact of new media on society, a framework which he will then apply to media: speech, writing, printing, visual media (e.g. movies and television) and the Internet.

Poe's conceptual framework begins with a simple framework for the study of technological innovation and growth, which emphasizes demand pull. He suggests that technologies are invented by tinkerers, building on previous knowledge. That seems simply silly to me, in the context of the Internet. Consider:
  • The conceptual design of the digital computer, done first by Charles Babbage who occupied Newton's chair at Cambridge University. The computer was reinvented in the 20th century, and perhaps the key paper was "Preliminary discussion of the logical design of an electronic computing instrument" by Arthur W. Burks, Herman H. Goldstine and John von Neumann. John von Neumann was a great mathematician who would have been of historic importance for his work in physics alone, had his efforts in mathematics and computers not overshadowed those contributions. Goldstine was among other things a PhD and a full professor at a major university. I actually took a course from Arthur Burks at the University of Michigan and can testify from personal knowledge that he was no "tinkerer".
  • The people at Bell Labs who first built integrated circuits or those at Intel who first figured out how to manufacture integrated circuits for personal computers were clearly consummate professionals.
  • Charles Townes who led the team that developed the maser and laser received the Nobel Prize for his work based on a body of theory that goes back to Einstein.
  • The team at the Corning Glass Works that made the critical breakthrough that made fiber optics production possible were similarly consummate professionals, not tinkerers.
  • Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf are credited with the invention of the Internet. I know them both, and neither is a tinkerer; both are brilliant technology developers with strong professional backgrounds.
  • Tim Berners-Lee OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA and a full professor at MIT invented the World Wide Web. A tinkerer? Really?
I also question whether Poe is right in holding that wide spread dissemination of technological innovations always comes from demand pull on the basis of large scale institutions creating the demand. Is that true of the World Wide Web, the personal computer, or the cell phone? I think more complex models of technology transfer are required.

I have written in the past of a model that looks at the preexisting knowledge and technology as well as the political, economic and cultural factors that influence the rate and extent of diffusion of a technology.

One example is that the dissemination of the Internet and the World Wide Web would not have been possible without the diffusion of information processing devices based on microchips and the diffusion of telephone connectivity. These, like television and radio, would not have been widely disseminated without the previous development of electrical systems and especially the electrical network.

Let me also note that there is a difference between the dissemination of electrical networks which depended on the development of a theory of electricity and an understanding of how electrical power could be produced and disseminated, as compared with the dissemination of telepathy based media. There is no theory of telepathy that would enable such a medium to be developed, and more importantly, there may not be a real phenomenon of telepathy that would make possible such theory.

Model of the Impact of the Medium on Society

The more developed portion of Poe's conceptual framework deals with the impact of media on society. He thinks of media as network phenomena, with each source or recipient of a communication as a node and the medium path defining the link between source and recipient. I am not sure that this framework works as well for speech, writing and print media as it does for the more modern media in which it has been elaborated. I look forward to reading subsequent chapters in which he tries to apply the idea.

Poe then suggests that every medium be characterized by eight (and only eight) critical attributes, each defined including considerations of cost :
  1. Accessibility
  2. Privacy
  3. Fidelity
  4. Volume
  5. Velocity
  6. Range
  7. Persistence
  8. Searchability
Each of these is seen as defining a continuum on which a specific medium may be located. (Do the locations change over time for a specific medium? I would assume so. 

According to human nature/human needs -- one need per attribute -- each of these attributes of the medium tends to engender an attribute of the network based on the medium. The attributes of the networks then tend to promote social practices. Poe then believes that the social practices tend to encourage the development of social values which are complementary to the practices. Thus radio and television media, in which relatively few people have access to create and transmit messages are seen to concentrate power, which in turn leads to hierarchical power structure, which in turn leads to authoritarianism as a value.

I am skeptical, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the model will be in the following chapters that apply it to different media.

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