Technology changes society. The ways we send and receive information fundamentally alters our interactions.
Marshall McLuhan chronicled the creation of tools that shaped communication and society. Our shift from the tribal epoch to the written epoch occurred with the invention of written alphabets that could transcribe oral histories. The shift from the literate epoch to the print epoch happened when the printing press made possible the rapid dissemination of ideas in texts. The later electronic epoch was born with the invention of the telegraph, which allowed messages to travel through a wire.
Each tool has emerged with it’s fair share of criticism. Books spread knowledge, but will empower people to revolt. Telephones are convenient, but they’re too impersonal to use regularly. Televisions are fun, but are a frivolous waste of time. Social media is cool, but it’s just a fad.
And, each tool raises a new opportunity to answer the fundamental questions about technology: how will people use it – for good or for ill.
Marshall McLuhan suggested that the epoch to come might return us to a tribal configuration: one in which oral histories could be shared electronically. This full-circle return to storytelling, he suggested, would create a “global village.” But to what end? How would humanity be altered by a return to oral history, or an advance to a digital history? These questions remain to be answered.
Yet, the sounds and images of this global village abound in local stories told globally. We watched as an Iranian election was disputed by citizens on Twitter. We viewed mobile phone footage of a plane landing on the Hudson River. We listened as politicians of all persuasions spread messages through podcasts and internet ads. We witnessed a Canadian teenager use YouTube videos to create a pandemic of Bieber fever.
In all of these examples, what we see are real people telling their stories. These stories are absent of the news editors, publishing houses, and broadcast networks that served for generations as the gatekeepers for information.
Now that we all have a global platform for our stories, which stories will we tell? How will we tell them? And whose stories will we choose to believe?