It was 1970 when poet and griot Gil Scott-Heron first proclaimed, “the revolution will not be televised.” Forty-two years later, many of us now turn to the Internet for our entertainment, pop-culture, news, and preferred mode of communication, rather than our previous go-to sources, the television and telephone. It makes me wonder what Scott-Heron would posthumously have to say today about revolutions being televised, and I imagine he would still believe that participation is a requirement, and the passive nature of the “boob tube” culture does not a revolution make. An active medium is the name of the revolution game, and the question still remains; will the revolution be televised? Or better yet, will human communications and societies be revolutionized as a result of how we use these new media tools? From where I’m sitting, it looks like good ol’ Gil was right; the revolution will not be televised, but it might very well include a Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr account.
Only four times in our history have we experienced technological advances in media that qualify as revolutionary; the shift from an oral tradition of exchanging information to the written word, the shift from the written word by hand to the printing press and its ability to reproduce quickly and reach the masses, the advent of the electronic age, which brought us the telegraph and telephone, and relatively soon thereafter, the radio and television. Each of these revolutionary tools have changed the way we interact with each other and see ourselves, altering our cultural fabric and our individual and social structures along this evolutionary path. Included with these cultural shifts, we are experiencing monumental shifts in the way our minds actually function, too. It is, as if, we’re observing Darwinism in action. We were once capable of reciting full, long stories as products of the oral tradition. Soon after the shift from the oral to the written age, we experienced a decline in our ability to recite from memory. Since most things were now being written down, the need for this ability became less important.
Now, it looks as if the digital age is the catalyst behind our brains creating different patterns, literally changing the way we think and process information. In 2008, author Nicholas Carr stirred things up when he wrote a piece for the Atlantic called Is Google Making Us Stupid, which suggests, in part, that an actual rewiring of the internet consuming brain is underway. If we use the aforementioned biological adaptation as a measuring stick to gauge whether or not new technological mediums are revolutionary, then the digital age we are now experiencing, no doubt, falls into the revolutionary category.
We’ve also observed how these various ages of media have changed communication; from one-to-one and one-to- many, as seen in the oral, written, and electronic traditions, to the new phenomonon of the many-to-many capabilities of the digital age. In his 2009 Ted talk, Clay Shirky says, the internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time. In other words, until the digital age, many-to-many simply was not functional. Shirky goes on to highlight the incredible idea that the digital age, for the first time, sees us experiencing all other media coming together at this nexus, or site of coordination. Simply, the Internet houses all media that has come before it, and acts as a tool for each. In reality, we use Skype to make phone calls, use Hulu to watch TV, stream Netflix to watch movies, read books and newspapers on our tablets and computers, write and self-publish blogs, books, and ‘zines, create podcasts and listen to music, and so forth, in order to experience media on our personal computing devices, all in one place. Revolutionary? Indeed.
Even more interesting, to me, is our current ability to experience many-to-one communications. Never before have we been capable of having many individuals communicate with one individual around a specific topic, and transcending space and time while doing it. Now, any individual who wants to can experience this phenomonon through “@ replies” on Twitter, comments on their blog, and personally curated RSS feeds, to name a few. The ability to aggregate content from many – curated for one – is indeed also revolutionary.
So here we sit, with more digital gadgets, more connectivity, and more information flowing towards us in one weekday edition of The New York Times today than what the average person in 17th-century England was likely to come across in a lifetime (Wurman). Screens, screens, and more screens, ’till the river runneth over. And it seems that all of this instant access to information and connectivity can leave us feeling, ironically, alienated. Perhaps more prevelant among those of us who grew up in the elctronic age, we who are not digital natives, is the longing for seemingly more human interactions of the past to ground this pixelated connectivity that we’re currently experiencing. Although we can currently experience the benefit of the ultra-digital connections in our lives, it seems our closest friends are more often the people whom we have facetime with, rather than those we Facebook with.
This digital age enables us to gather and organize, over space and time, and speak from many to many, for the first time in history. But without humans connecting away from these screens, the automonization will produce not much more than cluttered chatter that has little chance of finding its way below the radar. What Scott-Heron meant many years ago goes deeper than televising a revolution. What he meant was that only through active participation would a revolution be possible, and if we are all planted in front of the TV as passive recipients of the media, the revolution will cease to exist. Perhaps Scott Heron was excited about the power of the Internet in its ability to encourage an active user base. The power of the people is what revolutions are made of, and the Internet has literally dismantled the power structure once in control of publishing and content creation and put it in the hands of the masses.
This tool, where groups of people can organize, in real time and across time and space, en masse, will definitely pave the way for a revolution. We’ve already seen it in action with the Occupy movements here in the US, and Arab Spring demontrations across several Arab nations. The Internet has provided an instantaneous resource for civil disobedience best practices, and a never before seen communication tool, making it easier than ever before to gather people around a common cause.
In the end, though, it will be up to we, the people, to decide how to use these tools, and how to ensure we don’t lose our ability to access them – as the power struggle for control of information kicks into high gear. Over the past two weeks, Twitter has announced that it will cooperate with the censoring of cyberdissidents in various, rather ambiguous, ways. Based on the Tweeter’s geolocation and the request to do so by government officials, Twitter will shut down any users ability to speak. Just like that. Poof , you’re gone! So in the end, Scott Heron was right. The revolution will not be televised. It might, though, be actualized with the help of these new media tools, but mostly through our human ability to remain connected in real life, away from the screens.