Many years ago Margaret Mead, the late anthropologist, noted that the introduction of something as small as a needle and thread into a society would change that society. Her point was that even when technology appears benign, it isn’t. We are shaped by technologies, no matter what their scale.
This isn’t necessarily destructive, nor deterministic. It just is.
Today this seems simple and obvious. We adjust to a flow of technologies coming at us in a cascading stream that sometimes becomes a torrent. We wade, swim and sometimes are swept up in the waters of this change.
For example, in barely four years the iPod transformed how we listen, share and purchase music. One study noted that people with earbuds walking on city sidewalks seemed oblivious to the external environment . It called this a condition of the iPod culture.
Since its launch In October, 2001, ten million iPods have been sold and a new form of content-sharing and audio production is underway. Months ago no one had heard of Podcasting. Today producers of podcasts are ubiquitous.
We participate in this change as if it were a matter of course. It hardly seems remarkable. But it is remarkable. Digital technologies are changing our institutions and their practices in fundamental ways. Broadcast radio and television face competition unlike any they have known before. I listened with great fascination recently to a conversation in which the broadcast media (radio and television) were referred to as “old media.” It was as if they are passe’.
Recently when Pepsi introduced a new soft drink it not only avoided broadcast television, it also avoided the “traditional” thirty-second spot format, choosing instead to take its message to the Internet and other digital media. In addition, a variety of alternative media were employed including sponsorship of extreme sports and word-of-mouth “viral” marketing.
The new media not only provided the company with cost savings, they also allowed for more accurate, targetted marketing.
The loss of audience share by broadcast networks has been widely documented. But broadcast television is not alone. Christian radio saw its audience slip 10% between 1992 and 2005, according to a survey by Barna Group.
Equally intriguing is the generational divide that marks media use. National Public Radio, Public Broadcasting, network news and Christian television are all seeing their audiences grow older without replacing them with younger viewers and listeners. Barna says, for example, that Christian television is viewed by “people in their 60’s and older, females, residents of the South, African-Americans, people with limited education and income, and born again Christians.”
The only mass medium to increase its audience share in recent years is the Internet. The number of younger users have grown faster than older groups. And people under 40, according to Barna, show little interest in Christian media of any type.
As Kartik Subramanian writes, the iPod playlist makes possible 10 million unique experiences of music. It’s this individual empowerment that is fundamentally re-shaping the social context.
Excerpts from a symposium on digital technologies and journalism in The Nation, list how these basic changes are affecting traditional journalism and creating new forms of content sharing.
Digital technologies, according to Jay Rosen , NYU professor of journalism, have changed the social context:
- there has been a power shift from producers to users, mostly because of the Internet;
- this has led to a loss of sovereignty in the press. What I [Rosen] mean by that is simply a loss of exclusive control;
- Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in mainstream journalism. Problems of finding a believable voice keep growing in mainstream journalism, and this is related to the shift in power;
- (blogging) is well adapted to a world where the shift in power is taking place, to a world where there are many centers of sovereignty;
- Blogging is well adapted to two-way dialogue as opposed to one-to-many dialogue, which is also part of the media shift that we are living through;
- professional journalism, the way we teach it and understand it, [is] in fact an artifact of a one-to-many world.
There is a radical shift underway in media production and use. It is a shift toward empowered individuals. It involves many “centers of sovereignty,” in Rosen’s words. The old centralization of information and power–the one to many model–is breaking apart. Generations under 40 are opting out of traditional media and moving toward digital media, especially the Internet. As this happens, more people are getting religious information through media than through churches. Young people are looking for interactivity and functional information they can use. They are skeptical of centralized information sources. And, of course, people under 30 are native to the digital culture, unlike their elders who were formed in a pre-digital culture.
The implications for the culture and for religious organizations are striking. I’ll be writing about this in future posts.