Social Changes: Predicting
Changes in our connections open unexpected possibilities. We have seen this happen with personal computers and mobile devices. It's true that sending an e-mail message is something like handing a rolled up scroll to a messenger to deliver hundreds of miles away by riding a horse for a week. They both deliver messages. But the context and the modes of activity they allow are different. The increased velocity of messages and the increased number of messages bring about a qualitative change in the social relationships and patterns.
We have gotten used to the way new network technologies bring long-term changes. But we still think we know what will happen in the short term. When some unexpected new invention arrives pundits think they can forecast its impact. But this is usually not so.
For a historical example of the limits of foresight, consider audio recording. Thomas Edison's original phonographs inscribed indentations on paper covered with paraffin, and later on cylinders covered with wax, using a vibrating needle which was attached to a piece of metal that vibrated when struck by the speaking voice. There was no electricity involved. Making such a device requires the ability to shape metal thinly, to coat a surface with a layer of wax, make a fairly stiff pointed needle, and turn a cylinder at a constant rate. There is nothing in that list beyond the capabilities of ancient Chinese or Greek technology in 300 BC. Edison’s phonograph could have been manufactured then, in Athens or in Wu. We could have had recordings of Socrates or Confucius discoursing with their disciples. There were no technological difficulties; what was lacking was the idea of such a device. No one in those days conceived that sound might be recorded. The story is told that Edison himself was not intending to invent a sound recording device but rather a device to record telegraph messages. When he observed sound being produced by the device he saw the possibility of recording voice and music.
That conceptual breakthrough was encouraged by several decades of effort to communicate sound. The idea of the telegraph had been researched since the early 1800s and was successfully developed in the 1830s and spread in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1870 many people were trying to transmit speech. Bell's telephone was demonstrated in 1876. Edison invented the phonograph the following year.
Once he understood what he had made, Edison foresaw many practical uses of his invention.
Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878: Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part. The teaching of elocution. Reproduction of music. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons. Music-boxes and toys. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication. (The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph)
It is impressive that Edison predicted these uses for his device, but what is more significant to me are the uses that he did not foresee. The uses he described all presuppose the continuation of family and office arrangements already in place. He also underestimated the quantity, speed, and transport of recordings. Edison did not foresee very long recordings such as are used in security devices. Similarly, even though Edison began the business of selling recorded music; he did not foresee how recorded sound would become so portable and rapidly distributed. Most importantly, though, Edison presumes that the machine will be used only for the faithful reproduction of spoken voice and music. He did not imagine the kind of mashup that a DJ might do today, nor the creation of sounds and speech that were not previously spoken. We no longer presume that music and voices heard in recordings are the faithful storage of previously "recorded" sound. Even live music is often digitally manipulated. Parallel to the way that photography is no longer trustworthy, recordings are no longer "recordings."
The changes from Edison's original wax cylinders to vinyl recording discs to tape to CDs to digital storage, along with the concomitant change from analog to digital recording and manipulation, seem natural in retrospect, but they altered the way we interact with recordings and the place of recorded/generated music and sound in our lives. They created unforeseen possibilities, and new social roles. (Audio technician, music synthesizer, DJ, lab detective, person immersed in their own musical wallpaper while walking, etc.)
This kind of change comes about gradually and alters the horizon of use. Major technological changes, or the kind of changes that might come about through constriction of resources and disruption of networks, could cause huge shifts. So it is likely that unforeseen consequences and redefinitions of social roles and habits and values might result from network changes in travel, in the generation of energy, and the distribution of goods and information.
The scenarios I constructed mostly regress toward earlier models of small-town life, although maintaining far flung connections and networks, sometimes slowly. Concentrating on resources and transport, I surely underestimated the changes in other areas. If those scenarios were real, people would have had to give up many old definitions of how one relates to neighbors and what it means to live in a given geographical and biological area.
“The mindset of the 20th century was that physical aggregation was necessary for the hierarchal coordination of complex economic activities. The mindset of the 21st century may be that physical distribution excels, and is even preferable, when pursuing non-hierarchal, open source, and emergent coordination of complex economic activity. There seems to be a nearly endless stream of skeptics who claim that physical proximity (e.g. the city) is necessary for the kind of complex economic activity that underlies our quality of life. Usually, in my opinion, these theories rely on an outdated or misinformed understanding of economic coordination. These doubters seem broadly unfamiliar with advances in open-source, distributed manufacturing; of platform-driven systems; of the potential for tying vernacular resource bases into global networks of open-source innovation.” (A Resilient Suburbia 4: Accounting for the Value of Decentralization).
(Continue to Social Changes: Drastic)