The Brave New(est) World of the 21st Century Media

I think that it’s remarkable how far human society (and consequently, its media) has progressed. However, what I find truly  amazing, as well as quite hopeful, is that our social and technological development is accelerating, and has been doing so for the better part of a millennium.

What began over 500 years ago as a trickle of technological, economic, and societal growth grew into a torrent. The first daily newspaper was founded not two centuries after the Gutenburg’s perfection of the printing press.  Mass circulation media and the telegraph both arrived under a hundred years after that. The first telephone call– under forty years after the telegraph.

Then it really took off.

Film, radio, television broadcasts. Networks, computers, satellite communications, the Internet. Cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Blue-Ray, Facebook, Twitter. All invented either after or just before the last turn of the century.

I won’t go so far as to say technology is the primary driver behind human progress–as the authors of our textbook emphasized, it’s far more complicated than that. But it’s had an undeniable role in facilitating the exchange of information on every scale.

What a time to be alive!

The connections that exist between everything and everyone in our society– the channels through which things shape and are shaped by each other– are diversifying, multiplying to a degree never before seen. Though some of the vestiges of old power and traditional media remain, the level of decentralization and the rise of  audience participation are astounding.

I think the diversification of media sources via the participation of the “people formally known as the audience” will prove a boon for democracy. People who may have been previously apathetic are finding–and creating–ways of receiving important information that were previously unavailable. The primary duties of the media in a democracy are  to monitor those with power and cultivate an informed citizenry; it matters very little if those are fulfilled by WSJ, CNN, or via newer players like Reddit and Imgur.

The new media is here to stay, and even the most robust of the old guard media outlets are facing steady attrition. The world’s most widely circulated newspaper, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, had an average  circulation of 9.9 million for 2011, down slightly from the previous year; Reddit, the sharing website, had 731 million unique visitors in 2013, up 83% from 2012. Things are changing in a radical way.

The transition will be bumpy and the product won’t be perfect. Some traditional media outlets will fade into obsolescence; perhaps some new media will overreach and implode. And we must be wary of, as Neil Postman puts it, our tendency “to adore the technologies that undo our capacities to think.”  But what’s important to remember is that this is not the first time the media has undergone monumental change, and we survived.

Today’s traditional media was yesterday’s new media. And as today’s new media matures and consolidates, and even newer media and technologies not yet conceived arise in the future,  the forms of media we currently consider cutting edge may very well be in the same position newspapers are in now.

Trying to predict the future is ultimately a futile exercise, but if I could articulate in a single sentence my outlook on the future of media, it would sound something like this:

“For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”  -Winston Churchill

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2 thoughts on “The Brave New(est) World of the 21st Century Media”

  1. I like your brief analysis of the history of our media evolution. It’s amazing how our technologies in media, similar to the human population, are growing so exponentially fast. I am an optimist as well and I hope that people are able to use these advancements to function in society and work together to achieve bigger and better things. How do you think media helps people interact to make important societal decision? Do you think we will use media differently in the future? More so for group decision making rather than personal entertainment.

    1. Thanks for the comments!
      That’s a good question– one which I would have specifically answered in the blog post were there not length constraints.
      I absolutely that we will use media differently in the future–in a measure, I’d say we’re almost there already. The hallmark of informational/press media during this most recent past era was the very limited selection of media outlets and formats through which individuals could discuss amongst and educate themselves on important issues. These old formats–Print, radio, and even Television insofar as it is a tool of information and not just entertainment– are essentially one way.

      I think we, particularly our generation, are tired of using our parents’ media to learn about and engage with the world. So we’re figuring out our own ways, and creating our own communities and forums within which we can hash out the great issues and future challenges facing our world. And I think the fact that we have the ability to pioneer our own cooperative, more dialectic forms of media (apps, websites, what have you–we have the power) is pretty empowering. I hope as a generation we decide to fully utilize our agency in that respect.

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