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Standing on the shoulders of giants

We like to think of ourselves as living in the digital age. It’s a title that makes us feel more than modern, futuristic in fact. We’ve got all of this, this immediacy, this reach, all by touching a finger to a tiny screen. It’s a time of innovation, of advance, of technological magic and wish fulfilment. Boy it feels thrusting and exciting! Where were you when the world changed?

Except it isn’t changing, is it. And the reason we can see enough of what’s going on to give a name to the age, ‘Digital Age’, probably indicates that we’re at the fag end of it all. Because really, the digital age began a long time ago, not in the 21st century, not in the 20th century, but in the 19th century.

The first green shoot of the digital age probably came as early as 1837, when Cook and Wheatstone took out the first patent for electric telegraphy. In 1838 Samuel Morse and the Vail brothers came up with a system for even faster telegraphic communication. By 1850 it was possible to transmit 17 words a minute across 2,200 miles. It all stems from that.

But the digital age really began in the last decade or so of the 19th century when, in an amazing rush of almost simultaneous innovation, we got recorded sound, recorded motion, and then the ability to transmit first sound and then, early in the new century, moving images into the home. The gramophone, the cinema, the radio and, a little later, the television, this was the true birth of our digital age, because these truly were revolutionary developments. None of these things had been possible before. If you wanted to hear music, you had to go to where the music was being performed; if you wanted to see something, then you had to go to where that thing was. Suddenly something that had been unimaginable just 10 or 20 years before was now possible: sound and pictures were coming to you.

Of course none of these things were digital in the strict sense, but the digital part of it all is just technology. Linotype (1886) and monotype (1889) made vast technological improvements that allowed larger print runs, higher circulation, better quality, but it was still printing. Essentially all our digital technology has done is find quicker, more powerful, more efficient means of doing what the gramophone and the cinema, the wireless and the television did. The revolution was then, now is only the refinement.

Before the 1880s the only means by which anything at all might be broadcast was through print, primarily the newspapers. Once the gramophone and cinema were invented, then broadcasting became not just the primary means of disseminating culture (in the very broadest sense), but in fact fundamentally changed what culture is and how we perceive it (which is probably the same thing). This process accelerated with the introduction of the radio and television, in fact it was these devices which implanted the notion of broadcast culture most firmly in our minds. All that our digital technology has done since then has been to increase the acceleration without fundamentally changing that perception.

The one change that digital technology might facilitate is the increasing democratization of culture, in other words giving more people more opportunity to contribute to the culture and not just consume it. But as yet we have no way of knowing if that is likely to be a quantitative or a qualitative change to the culture. After all, right from the middle years of the 19th century, we’ve had people taking their own photographs, recording their own music, making their own home movies. Only radio and television really resisted this private engagement with the production as well as the consumption of culture. So even this democratization may just be allowing out something that has been latent for the last century and a half; or it may be a first harbinger of whatever succeeds our dying digital age.

2 thoughts on “Standing on the shoulders of giants

  1. Interesting take, Paul, especially the closing question of whether this is a qualitative or quantitative change. I’m inclined to agree with you and lean to the latter. The ‘digital’ part is really secondary: what we’re looking at here is more properly the Information Age.

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