CT551--Week 9--Lecture notes

Technology and Communications

Volti, in Ch. 12, "Printing," makes a number of interesting points. First, he reinforces some of our earlier discussions of how technologies serve the educated, technically skilled elite by making it clear that for a very long time after its invention, the technology of writing fit the pattern. (I love the story of the Psalm 51 "neck verse"!) As record-keeping grew ever more essential, the skill of literacy spread. When movable metal type and the printing press made possible the mass production of books, it took off in a very big way. One can draw obvious parallels with the automobile, the computer, and others.

Second, he stresses that technologies such as printing can have tremendously pervasive effects on society. Once information was widely available and more people had access to it, it became more and more possible to question authority, to be skeptical. Both Protestantism and science--both of which are rooted in that change--came along very quickly. The ever-increasing demand for literacy led to a rapid increase in the education industry. Less charmingly, perhaps, the mass production inherent in printing led into the industrial age and the "dehumanization" of the worker. And new ideas--human rights, for instance--could spread much more rapidly than ever before. Combined with the new ability to question authority, the idea that people had rights other than those granted by their absolute owners and rulers led in due time to the American, French, and Russian revolutions (and others) and the deaths of millions.

Is the printing press thus as deadly an invention as gunpowder? One could argue that--guns kill but ideas motivate--but it seems a bit of a stretch. Like many technological developments, the hazards lie less in the technology itself than in what people do with it. And one of the things that sprang from availability of information, skepticism, and challenging of authority was science, which has been a powerful force for human welfare.

Third, Volti stresses that the society of the time was ripe for printing and literacy. The Protestant Reformation happened because printing made it possible to unify a number of revolts against the Catholic Church, and the ensuing demand for Bibles and tracts helped drive the spread of literacy and printing. Thus printing was perhaps more of a facilitator than a cause.

Still, it is well worth wondering whether we might say that the world we know today owes more to the single technology of the printing press than to any other. We will discuss this on-line.

In Ch. 13, Volti turns to the electronic media, meaning radio and TV. Initially for experts (its early major use was ship-to-shore communications), radio quickly fell into the hands of amateurs, hobbyists, who realized that it had other potentials (news, weather, entertainment). The story seems familiar to anyone familiar with the rapid development of the Internet (from BBS's onward) and the World Wide Web (personal Web sites galore!).

Radio and TV differ from print. Print has the advantage of being permanent and encouraging skepticism (by permitting easy comparison of two or more sources laid out on a table before one). Radio and TV sound and image have a more convincing immediacy, however, and they don't permit easy comparison of sources--although the newer technologies of the VCR/DVD-R, cable, clicker, and TIVO (etc.) have changed that a bit.

They also provide rapid access from a central point, and they don't need special training to understand. That is, there is no equivalent of "literacy." Thus tyrants love them because they can reach their subjects easily and control what their subjects hear/see; in them they have a technological equivalent of the pre-Gutenberg pulpit, which similarly ensured that people heard only what the priest (or other authority) wanted them to hear. Of course, tyrants also hate radio and TV because radio/TV signals cross borders easily (e.g., Voice of America). Books are easier to keep out of a country.

The difference between print and radio/TV is interesting in another way as well. The "Printing Revolution" encouraged skepticism and critical thinking, and as it gained momentum, it created a demand for literacy and education. Radio and TV need no skill comparable to literacy in order to be understood. They can be understood as soon as we learn to understand spoken language, and their immediacy means that they penetrate our minds--bypassing the critical sense--very efficiently. Because they don't encourage easy comparison, they don't encourage skepticism. They are thus in a sense anti-literate, and they--especially TV--have even been blamed for the decline of literacy. A danger is that as we add easily available video-editing tools to the ones we already have for audio and image, what we see or hear on radio and TV becomes less trustworthy. But it is still very convincing, which means that people with a message they wish to put across will always love it.

Currently, many people are quite worked up about government control of TV--violence, sex, etc.--with some objecting that censorship is evil and some crying just as loudly that it is essential to protect the family, flag, national honor, whatever. It is interesting to note that radio and TV did a great deal to get government into the business of controlling technology, but not really in a censorship way--the job of the first regulators was primarily to ensure that different stations' signals did not interfere with each other. At least, that was the case at first. Soon came the "public interest and service" requirements on broadcasters' licenses, which opened a door to censorship.

Should we censor? Should we control radio and TV content? Video game content? (Certainly video games are violent enough!  They also encourage a kind of addiction.) Almost anything will offend someone. The Southern Baptists voted to boycott anything connected to Disney (including several cable networks, ABC, theme parks, publishers, etc., etc.), because the company attacks the American family; they ended the boycott when they decided other issues needed attention and Disney started paying attention to Christian issues. Some things may have demonstrable effects on society--watching TV murders seems to make kids more violent, commercials encourage rampant materialism, trash tabloid TV encourages sensationalism. But what, if anything, should we stop?

As for the Internet, Volti discusses the Digital Divide, which remains real but of ever less importance. Access and usage increase every year. In 2010, more than three quarters of North Americans had access! Compare these statistics to those Volti cites, and note that the problem is clearly diminishing; even in Africa usage is up (from 2007's 5.3 to 10.9% of population, a whopping 100% increase!). Today discussion of access disparities in the U.S. tends to focus on access to broadband, not access to the Internet.

Note also that the Internet has both its benefits and its drawbacks. The latter in particular involve new forms of misbehavior, notably in connection with intellectual property.

If the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) effort ever succeeds, the impact on human society could easily match or exceed the impact of printing, or at least of the electronic media. There could be a sudden flood of information from some far-distant civilization and the subsequent spread of knowledge and new perspectives. The possibilities are mind-boggling! More likely, we would learn no more than that we are not alone in the universe, but just that would have a profound impact.

Are the possibilities as scary as they are mind-boggling? Many people think so, and in our readings, radio astronomer and SETI researcher Seth Shostak argues that if the assumptions behind the SETI search are well grounded, signals of extraterrestrial origin will be detected soon, perhaps within the next generation. But Peter Schenkel, a retired political scientist, argues that SETI's lack of success to date, coupled with the apparent uniqueness of Earth's history and suitability for life, suggests that intelligent life is probably rare in our galaxy. It is time, he says, "to dampen excessive SETI euphoria and to adopt a ... stand, compatible with facts." Those who find SETI's possibilities frightening can relax.

Estimates of how likely success in SETI is hinge on the Drake equation:
N = R x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
N is the number of detectable civilizations somewhere out there in space.
R is the rate of star formation.
fp is the fraction of stars that form planets.
ne is the probability that a planet will be hospitable to life.
fl is the fraction of those planets where life actually appears.
fi is the fraction of those planets where intelligent life evolves.
fc is the fraction of planets with intelligent life that develops technological civilization capable of interstellar communication.
L is the average lifetime of such civilizations.

This equation has been the basis of an immense amount of argument and speculation among SETI researchers and others, even though only two of its terms (R and fp) can be estimated by astronomers even roughly. The others can only be guessed at, at least until we somehow collect more data, but the equation remains the only guide we have to how to estimate N. At the very least, it tells us what data we need to collect.

One of the equation's terms (L) is especially interesting. Our own civilization has had the technological ability to send and receive interstellar signals for only a few decades. How long will we retain that ability? Note that during the Cold War (when the equation was first formulated), before the fall of the Iron Curtain, estimates tended to be quite short.

How long would a civilization have to last to hold a radio conversation across interstellar distances? The closest star (other than the sun) is 4.3 light-years away, meaning that it would take almost a decade to ask a question and receive an answer. Most stars are much further away--hundreds and thousands of light-years. What kinds of messages would be worth sending when "conversations" are entirely out of the question? Or might we attempt to consider an interstellar conversation between civilizations rather than individuals?

Even if we can't hold a conversation, spotting undoubted signals of alien, intelligent origin would change the way we look at the universe. Religions that insist on a unique, privileged position for human beings would be shaken. And if the signals carried information we could decode, we might suddenly have access to large amounts of knowledge, new points of view, and more, much as happened when printing, radio, TV, and Internet all came along. And if "decoding" just meant figuring out how to put alien video signals on a screen, even without knowing what "people" were saying, we would gain a glimpse of their versions of situation comedies, children's shows, and newscasts.

Questions for Discussion

1. In what sense does the world we know today owe more to the single technology of the printing press than to any other? Would America's distinguishing emphases -- on technology, individual freedom, and universal education -- even be possible if the printing press had never been invented? What aspects of the Modern Age would remain if the press and its effects were somehow to be removed from history?

2. Like radio and TV, the Internet is a medium of electronic communication. Yet it also has a strong print component. Is it more like print or radio/TV? Does it encourage skepticism and critical thinking? See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/cyberspace/rheingold.html.

3. Here's a nice, slow pitch: Public schooling was invented because a literate citizenry was seen as more valuable to society than an illiterate citizenry. Public libraries were invented to give the literate citizenry equal access to books. Is computer literacy as valuable as print literacy? How should society promote it?

Note that the literacy bar keeps being raised.

4. If SETI is ever successful, it will represent a huge new step in communication. What will the effects be? Will humanity suffer from a species-wide inferiority complex? Will the unavoidable broadening of perspective lead to a quantum leap in critical thinking (as printing did)?

Note that the Internet can in no way go interstellar. Because nothing can travel faster than light, the necessary signals would take over four years to reach the nearest star (and another four for an answer to come back). We'd be "timed out" for sure! An interplanetary Internet is another matter, for the distances are much shorter and the delays are on the orders of minutes or hours; there is already talk of hooking automated observation stations on Mars into the Net, and NASA has tested a "deep-space" Internet.