Henry David Thoreau argued that modern technology is simply an improved means to an unimproved end. While technology has changed the way the world operates and has altered mass communication, the focus has been more on the use of new media rather than its impact. Yes, it allows for an expanded world, one far beyond the tangible. However, social media platforms have become so integrated into the communication of information by amateurs and professionals alike, that the ability to use these tools has superseded the understanding of their purpose and their impact — the death of knowledge in favor of information.
Understanding new media technology requires even-handed judgment of the opportunities it provides and those it demolishes. It’s possible that what’s being replaced by new media technology is necessary for effective communication.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, there is mention of a legend in which Thamus, the king of a city in Upper Egypt, hosts Theuth, the god and inventor of numbers, calculation, geometry, astronomy and writing, among other things. Theuth shares his inventions with Thamus, suggesting that they should be made available to Egyptians. After inquiring into the use of each invention, Thamus expresses their positive and negative attributes. In his presentation on the invention of writing, Theuth says, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” Thamus replies:
Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as far as wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
Thamus suggests that writing might inhibit memory and promote the recollection of information, not the communication of knowledge. Likewise, new technologies built on the input and export of stored information may inhibit individuals from critically analyzing information in a way that gives it meaning and value.
So, is the noteworthy influence of new media technology improving communication? Does that new style of communication benefit the society that inherits it? The definitive answer remains to be seen, but the outlook seems grim.
New technology has undoubtedly long changed the way in which the world operates. The printing press forever altered the power of the written word, and audio recordings transformed the capacity of speech. Seminal technological inventions and innovations have steadily redefined society, shaping how it views itself and its environment. Information technology has simultaneously expanded and shrunk the world. Information reigns supreme. However, integrating rapidly changing new technologies that redefine the mass media landscape and changing the roles of those within it provide a multifaceted challenge.
Manipulation of technology, not simply the technology itself, is far more pervasive in how it changes the environment. Had Johannes Guttenberg created the press and humankind used it only sparingly, perhaps its influence would not have been so great. However, the printing press was not simply for printing, it began a larger movement of production and the encouragement of intellectual development because knowledge became easier to disseminate. The potential to gain authority through a new tool encouraged society to be of influence. In this way, the printing press produced an entirely different Europe.
This can be argued about nearly any transformative technology. The advent of the telephone changed the meaning of correspondence, the advent of the train changed the meaning of distance, and the computer changed the meaning of processing. To understand how to integrate new technologies, they must first be understood themselves. Analyzing information is essential in the development of knowledge. Otherwise, simply adding contributors results in an excess of indiscernible information that provides questionable degrees of truth or context. The more information that is coming from anywhere and anyone, the more difficult it becomes to track or regulate its authenticity.
With those “formerly known as the audience” playing a large role in the production of content, media literacy is even more significant. It requires the ability to process information, not merely produce it or participate with it. A media literate person could access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages.
Perhaps the participatory culture is not establishing a two-way communication system that empowers the public to interact and engage their peers through contribution to and cooperation with the professional mass media, but instead is merely establishing an entirely new format of mass communication that produces even more one-way information, adding to the excess of information bereft of knowledge. If all contributors of information are equal in their ability to create content and share information, the regulation and vetting of that information and acceptable standards of content become increasingly difficult to establish.
A more pressing concern is truth. Simply understanding how to mimic professional products through the accessibility and ease of new media means that even invalid, untested or simply inaccurate content can potentially be easily mistaken for truth by those who are unable to discern the difference. Excess of information breeds an irreparable uncertainty.
Another concern is amassing information already in line with one’s established perspective. In many cases, people use social media tools to circumnavigate traditional forms of mass media and to aggregate news content shared by individuals they already associate with and whose perspectives they value. In essence, access to more information in such a form doesn’t necessarily mean that one will develop an open mind. In fact, it can very well have the opposite effect.
New technology has created an ecological change in the realm of mass media, manifesting itself in a movement toward a participatory culture. This means that a new blueprint will need to emerge if knowledge is to be preserved. The success of this new environment depends on whether its inhabitants can discern between information and knowledge.