Don’t Touch That Dial! A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook
from Heineman Media
A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both ‘confusing and harmful’ to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an ‘always on’ digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used email and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe, but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.
Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.
These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself. In parallel with modern concerns about children’s overuse of technology, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories’. He also advised that children can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not ‘improper’ tales, lest their development go astray. The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since: The older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the ‘wholesome’ media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced...
When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome. In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone reported that children had ‘developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker’ and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds. The television caused widespread concern as well: Media historian Ellen War ella has noted how ‘opponents voiced concerns about how television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarisation of American culture’.
By the end of the twentieth century, personal computers had entered our homes, the internet was a global phenomenon, and almost identical worries were widely broadcast through chilling headlines: CNN reported that ‘Email “hurts IQ more than pot”,’ The Telegraph that ‘Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values’ and the ‘Facebook and Myspace generation “cannot form relationships”,’ and the Daily Mail ran a piece on ‘How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer’. Not a single shred of evidence underlies these stories, but they make headlines across the world because they echo our recurrent fears about new technology ...
There is, in fact, a host of research that directly tackles these issues. To date, studies suggest there is no consistent evidence that the internet causes mental problems. If anything, the data show that people who use social networking sites actually tend to have better offline social lives, while those who play computer games are better than non-gamers at absorbing and reacting to information with no loss of accuracy or increased impulsiveness. In contrast, the accumulation of many years of evidence suggests that heavy television viewing does appear to have a negative effect on our health and our ability to concentrate. We almost never hear about these sorts of studies anymore because television is old hat, technology scares need to be novel, and evidence that something is safe just doesn’t make the grade in the shock-horror media agenda.
The writer Douglas Adams observed how technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything that is developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after that is treated with suspicion. This is not to say all media technologies are harmless, and there is an important debate to be had about how new developments affect our bodies and minds. But history has shown that we rarely consider these effects in anything except the most superficial terms because our suspicions get the better of us. In retrospect, the debates about whether schooling dulls the brain or whether newspapers damage the fabric of society seem peculiar, but our children will undoubtedly feel the same about the technology scares we entertain now. It won’t be long until they start the cycle anew.
Vaughan Bell, Slate Magazine, 15 February 2010. Vaughan Bell is a clinical and research psychologist.
1 Identify five past or present concerns about media technology mentioned in the ‘Don’tTouch That Dial!’ article.
2 What is ‘moral panic’? Do you believe that people’s moral concerns about the effect of media technology are justified or over-exaggerated? explain your answer.
3 choose five recent news stories from the technology sections of national, state or local print or web-based newspapers and briefly summarise the technology focus and any issues that arise from the technology being highlighted in the articles.
New Media Press Pause Play
PressPausePlay is a documentary exploring the possibilities and problems posed by increasing access to digital technology.
“Everybody’s a photographer, everybody’s a filmmaker, everybody’s a writer, everybody’s a musician,” says Moby at the beginning of the documentary.
Are we at the beginning of a cultural revolution? What are the implications for art and creativity? What happens the music industry when people can record and distribute their own albums?
Over the last decade, we’ve seen the most significant shift in the mass media since the invention of moveable type. For several hundred years, the ability to publish and broadcast has been in the hands of the wealthy. Now, with little more than smart phone and an internet connection, you can share your work with millions of people.
“Technology always comes first,” artist Bill Drummond says in PressPausePlay. “That technology is usually invented for some other reason, then the artist comes along and abuses it and changes it.”
The internet is responsible for much of this revolution. The increasing speed of broadband and availability of sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Soundcloud make it easy for people to share their films and music with others. It also gives artists the opportunity to communicate directly with their fans.
It’s not just the internet, however, that driving this cultural revolution. Most smart phones are now capable of shooting high definition video. Cameras like the Canon 550d MKII, allow people to shoot stunning video. Programs like Garageband and Reason have put the tools for music production in the hands of the masses.
“I think this is an incredibly time for artists,” says music journalist Brenda Walker. “There’s no cap on creativity. The technological advances have given the artist an open door to creating as much as their capacity will allow.”
In PressPausePlay, Walker argues that power has shifted from record companies and movie studios to the artists themselves. “We’re at a time when artists have the power,” she says. “I’m often puzzled that they don’t recognise exactly how much power they have. There is no record company without the artist. There is no venue to fill without the artist. There is no t-shirt to sell without the artist.”
“Anybody can go out and buy a movie, anybody who has fifteen hundred dollars can buy a camera,” says film director Lena Dunham. “Even if you don’t, there’s so many ways to make a movie, there’s so many ways to distribute your film on the internet. There’s a million different platforms. So that’s really good for people who want to express themselves but it also makes it harder to break through all of the noise.”
It’s this noise, this flood of mediocrity, that many see as a downside of this cultural revolution. In PressPausePlay, author Andrew Keen argues that one of the difficulties creators face is the possibility that their work will be “lost in the ocean of garbage”.
In the documentary, David Weinberger argues that the availability of this technology is good news for equality in an industry that has traditionally been controlled by “white guys”. The technology, he argues, will ultimately result in greater diversity and creativity because it gives a voice to people who’ve traditionally been marginalised by the mass media.
PressPausePlay also features an interview with author Seth Godin whose book Unleashing the IdeaVirus suggests that ideas that are free spread faster and these ideas ultimately win. This book, it turns out, demonstrates this idea beautifully. When he released the book, Godin made it available for free on his website. The book was downloaded five million times and people began asking for printed copies. Deciding to self-publish, he made the book available on Amazon where it shot to number five on the charts. “I made more money from the book I gave away than the book I had sold,” he says. Others aren’t so optimistic. “For a serious young filmmaker, these are very, very depressing times.” argues Andrew Keen. “When you leave everything to the crowd, when everything is democratised, when everything determined by the number of clicks, you’re by definition undermining the seriousness of the artistic endeavour.”
Overall, PressPausePlay is an interesting look at the possibilities and problems posed by this cultural revolution.
1. What are the benefits of this cultural revolution for emerging musicians?
2. What are the benefits of low cost, high quality equipment like RED cameras?
3. How does new technology inspire collaboration?
4. How has new technology democratised media? What possibilities and problems are posed by this democratisation?
5. How does this new technology benefit artists over traditional media companies and publishers?
6. What implications does this new technology have for education and training in the media?
7. How did file sharing influence the music industry?
8. How has this technology influenced the way that we listen to and interact with media, particularly music?
PressPausePlay Official Website
PressPausePlay on YouTube