You are on page 1of 9

1

Technological Change & Cultural Transformation

Is free will a subject of the imagination? Does communication media drive human behaviour? Is human culture merely a technological construct? Or, do humans have the ability to think for themselves? According to communication theorists, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, communication media shape human culture. Their argument omits the idea that individuals have the power to act and think for themselves. Innis was the first to justify this theory by analyzing society before and after electronic communication media. In doing so, he discovered that every new electronic technology has the ability to re-shape society. McLuhan explained that cultural change occurs because different qualities exist between communication technologies. McLuhan identified and compared the qualities of the television to previous communication technologies such as books and radio. As a result, he discovered that television had new qualities that could re-shape culture. This led McLuhan to confirm that every new communication media will cause cultural change. This theory continues to be supported today. Had Innis and McLuhan lived through the present day, they would have viewed the World Wide Web (WWW) as the next communication medium to re-shape culture. By exploring the evidence behind Innis and McLuhan’s theory concerning technological control over human culture, one can predict that today’s society is driven by the values and principles encouraged by the WWW.

2 Innis was the first to claim that communication media have the ability to shape a society. Innis argued “structures of consciousness parallel structures of communication” (1951). Here, Innis claims that a new culture is brought into existence with every new communication technology. To illustrate this, he formed two cultural biases: temporal and spatial. A temporally biased culture signified the society of the tribal age, while a spatially biased culture represented a society driven by electronic communication media. These two biases represented the two human cultures that were divided by different communication media: traditional vs. electronic. The temporal culture was driven by traditional means of communication media such as speech, drums, canoes, and dance. It was a time-based society characterized by small, personal, and close-knit communities. With the rise in electronic communication media, the value of community declined as technologies such as books and newspapers promoted a new importance of individual activity and a greater focus on the self. This radical shift is what made Innis discover the diversity of technological influence (Carey 1989).

Innis’ discovery of the cultural shift helped him to confirm that every new communication medium has the ability to physically re-shape the human culture. To further prove that the medium shapes the minds of its users, McLuhan went into depth about how this occurs. McLuhan argued, “the medium is the message” (41). Here, he reinforces Innis’ claim that communication media have the ability to transform a message. He outlines that when a message is sent via a medium, a process of mediation occurs which reshapes the message. Mediation allows transmission and the exchange of information in the process of sending and receiving. Thus, the message is changed via

3 technological control. To exemplify this theory, McLuhan suggested how the media used by artists such as drawing/painting tools and or colours have control over the significance of an artwork. As drawings and paintings create different forms, and colours signify different moods, a variety of messages transpire (McLuhan 2001).

Since Innis and McLuhan lived in different time periods, they analyzed different cultural shifts. Whereas Innis compared the culture of the acoustic age (temporal culture) to the print culture (spatial culture), McLuhan compared the print culture to the television age. McLuhan attempted to prove that television supports the idea of technological determinism (1984). Like Innis, McLuhan used the spatial society as one of his variables, though he re-names the culture in his own terms. He refers to Innis’ spatial society as the literate culture (print culture), to illustrate that it was an age of reading and writing. Following the age of print, he believed the television shaped a new electronic oral/aural culture (television culture).

McLuhan’s television culture may seem like an attempt to construct a third culture to Innis’ cultural biases, however, he argued that the television culture is rather a step back to the values and traditions of a temporally biased society (Griffin 1997). He discovered that the television culture is shaped by similar values as the communication media that shaped Innis’ temporal culture, as it also valued participation and community. Unlike, Innis’ spatial culture where individual activity and one’s self were of high importance, McLuhan explained that the television culture was marked by a renewed value of tribalism and group activity. He stated, “we are re-tribalizing, involuntarily

4 we are getting rid of individualism…we are no longer so concerned with self definition…we are most concerned about what the group knows” (1960). McLuhan explains how television culture will move human kind away from the individual human being shaped by print culture and back to a new tribal human being. As the print culture valued privacy, the television culture would open up a new world of greater social interaction.

McLuhan was able to distinguish the temporal and television cultures from print culture by the differences between their communication media. He outlined that there are two categories of communication media: hot and cold. He used the words hot and cold in order to signify the opposite. He described hot media as technologies that hone-in on one sense, promote individual activity, and are information intense. These media represented technologies such as newspapers and radio that shaped the spatial culture. For example, newspapers hone-in on the eye, and are information intense because they give out lots of information and are experienced alone. In contrast to hot media, McLuhan explained that cold media hone-in on all of the senses, promote group activity, and are less information intense because they are experienced with others. Cold communication media represented the stories and canoes of the temporal culture, and the television of the oral/aural culture (McLuhan 2000).

Innis’ temporal culture and McLuhan’s oral/aural culture are similar societies because cold communication media drives them both. Both the traditional technologies of the temporal culture and the electronic technologies of the oral/aural culture promoted

5 community and participation. The only exception is that the medium of television of the oral/aural age expanded the ways people can see the world. McLuhan argued that the television allowed people to see the world without travelling far distances. He theorized that electronic media transformed the world into a global village: a place where time and space barriers have been broken down allowing for communication over far distances in less time (1960). He said, “the new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village” (Griffin 344). Thus, electronic communication media have shrunk the world to the size of a small community.

Not only did McLuhan discover that electronic communication media could make the world smaller, but that it could re-shape the definition of community. With the television, communities were no longer limited to small groups where common messages remained private. McLuhan argued that the television shaped massive groups through public promotion of standardized messages (Wolfe 1968). McLuhan stated “the world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message, all the time, a princess gets married in England, and boom, boom, boom, go the drums, we all hear about it, an earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk, away go the drums again” (1960). The television’s promotion of standardized messages led to the formation of immeasurable communities on local, national, and international levels.

Today, McLuhan’s theory of technological determinism continues to be supported. The World Wide Web (WWW) is the latest electronic communication medium to

6 transform culture. Society has transformed from a television-based culture to a computer culture. One could attempt to categorize computer culture as McLuhan’s forth period of human history. The WWW supports McLuhan’s idea that technological influence shapes a society. As the television culture evolved from the literate culture, the WWW has evolved out of television culture. The difficult relationships that arise between today’s parents and children can help to prove that the television and the WWW divided culture. Today’s parents, who grew up during the television culture, have difficulty understanding their children because children today are shaped by the values of computer culture. This same conflict occurred between today’s parents and their parents as they experienced the conflicts that existed between literate culture and television culture.

Had McLuhan experienced the WWW, one could predict that he would have recognized it as the next communication medium to have the ability to change human experience. He stated, “inventions in technology invariably cause cultural change” (Griffin 343). Also, by understanding McLuhan’s notion of hot and cold media, one may presume that he would have defined the WWW as a medium with the qualities of both hot and cold media. It is difficult to define the WWW as hot or cold as it combines both literacy (a quality of a hot media) and visual imagery (a quality of cold media). It is a neutral media: not too hot and not too cold. The WWW is a medium with high and low information intensity and more or less participation. It is information intense because it is loaded with an immeasurable amount of web pages. However, it becomes less intense when one knows what they are searching for. Also, the WWW requires less participation because it hones-in on one sense (the eye), though since one has to search and read in

7 order to attain information it becomes highly participatory. Lastly, the WWW shapes individual and group experiences. Searching on the WWW is usually an individual experience, though when users participate in interactive online games, a communal activity is formed.

As it is difficult to justify the WWW as a hot or cold medium, it is confirmed that it has the qualities to transform every aspect of human experience. McLuhan once said, “family life, the workplace, schools, health care, friendship, religious worship, recreation, politics – nothing remains untouched by communication technology” (Griffin 343). The WWW supports this notion because it has re-shaped human behaviour, transformed the way people communicate, and changed how institutions are run. Nowadays almost anything can be found by the click of a mouse. The WWW is speeding up society. It has also changed the value of traditional friendships and relationships. Now, our society builds virtual friendships and relationships through means of online communication. Instant messaging services (msn, aol), email, facebook, discussion boards, and chat rooms are some of many modes of communication made available by the WWW. These media have decreased the value of face-to-face interaction and increased virtual interaction. Nowadays, corporations have business conferences and perform business transactions over the WWW. Plus, certain conventions of the educational system have changed. Student courses are now available online, and email has become a key way for students to interact with their instructors. These are just some of many ways computer technology has modernized society.

8 While the WWW has enhanced the way people communicate, in this process it has made the world appear smaller. The WWW confirms that electronic communication media have the ability to shrink the globe into the size of a global village. Like the television, barriers in human communication do not restrict the WWW. Though, what sets the WWW apart from television technology is that it shrinks the globe even further. It does not only break apart time and space barriers but it gets rid of them for good. The WWW has transformed the world into a global home. People no longer have to leave their homes to survive. The WWW allows one to shop for food, buy clothing, be educated, entertained, do business, and build friendships and relationships. Nowadays, one can survive with mere shelter and the WWW.

By understanding McLuhan’s theories concerning electronic media, one can predict that he would have viewed the WWW as a positive advancement. Since McLuhan was astonished by television’s power to allow people to see the world, one could predict that he would have valued the WWW’s ability to take people even further. Plus, McLuhan’s value of the communal experience continues to be encouraged by the WWW. Even though the WWW promotes an indirect method of communication, online communication media encourages users to participate in group activities.

The relationship that exists between communication media and cultural change confirms that the WWW will transform culture. Innis’ analysis of cultural change and McLuhan’s discovery of the differences that exist between communication media helped to prove that every new technology drives societal change. Three stages of human

9 history have transpired as a result of technological innovation: acoustic, literate, and oral/aural culture. As different communication media drove each, they become cultural divisions. Now, with the WWW, a computer culture is the latest age in human history to emerge. As the WWW promotes different values than the communication media of the past, it will shape a new culture. The WWW has already changed the way people communicate and how institutions are run. It is the latest medium to govern the way human culture acts and thinks. The WWW will continue to shape society until the next electronic communication medium emerges and a new human culture is shaped. The world will forever be a continuous cycle of technological innovation and cultural change.

Monday, December 4th /2006 By: Kelly Foss