If you are reading this article, then it is no surprise to you that our electronic culture is changing faster than we can measure and our connectedness boasts the largest geographical and numerical network in history. The phenomenon of our communication age is a child of several technologies that all dramatically shaped our culture, and it is merging, changing, and undoing many of the products of those technologies as electronic culture claims its own place in our postmodern world.
Take, for instance, the printing press. Talk about a world changer. The process of reading and writing is inherently isolating, so whatever semblances of tribal cultures may have existed prior to the invention of the printing press began to unravel. The result was a society that began to value individual time and experience over interpersonal interaction and community growth. Humans, however, are social beings, and we continue to find ways to interact that resemble our community heritage. Enter the telegraph.
With the invention of the telegraph, people could communicate not at 35 miles per hour, but at virtual light speeds. The speed of the electric pulse. and the method of leveraging that pulse as communication freed people from the dull realities of location. if the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, then the information is always more enticing from the other side of the world. Gossip was a national event, and people were connected again in a dramatically different way. But there was still a piece of connection missing. There was still no tribal thread that could weave people together. We needed to return to our oral traditions, to be connected with a sense of presence. We needed the power of voice. Enter the radio.
Again, there was community. There was shoulder to shoulder time, engaging in a listening experience with the spoken word. Radio also had elements of the telegraph, though. This was a broadcast signal, and it was shared by everyone who owned the equipment or could find themselves in front of a radio at the right time. There was connection happening, but the connection was growing beyond one’s present location. You could now telephone someone and talk about the show that you both heard. Instant connection. Not intimate, but connected.
Photographs began communicating without words, Radio began communicating without pictures, the telephone, the child of the telegraph, began communicating without presence. If only there were a way to tie these all up into a package that would deliver a total experience devoid of physical connection.
As television became more and more accessible and innovation gave way to computers and, eventually, to the internet, humanity continually looked for that tribal connection. From reality TV to chat rooms, our need for community and social interaction plays out in our technologies in dynamic and subtle ways. The blogosphere is a prime example of this. We are connected. we share stories and ideas, but we are not intimate.
It is one of our society’s great paradoxes. Intimate anonymity. We want connectedness, but we achieve it in a gated community and isolate ourselves with fences and attached garages. We want to communicate, but we experience communication without experiencing the presence of face to face interaction. We want family and tribal experiences, but we guard ourselves from their invasive intimacy by achieving those experiences remotely.
The only way to face this dilemma is to recognize it and to be intentional about facing the ways that our lives are shaped by our electronic age. It is time that we began shaping our electronic culture, rather than the other way around.