18 July 2013

Don't let your technology dictate your theory

[T]he electronic media circulate[s] opinions rapidly, widely and effectively [but also fosters] opinions which are necessarily attenuated and transitory. The spoken word takes much longer to communicate than does the written word, so that there is not time enough for extensive and thorough coverage of a situation by electronic media. Even hourlong accounts, attempting to provide background and detail, are inevitably truncated. Thus instead of being presented as a complex issue, with intricate sources and ramifications, the situation is reduced to a problem with one or two major aspects stemming from one or two causes and involving one or two potential consequences. In addition, electronically distributed opinions do not remain very long in the circulatory system. Except for tape recordings in the possession of broadcasting companies, electronically circulated opinions cease to exist as soon as they have been transmitted. That means that if an opinion-holder's mind wanders during the broadcast, or if he is confused by the commentary, he cannot rectify his absent-mindedness or his confusion. There is no way of turning back the radio or television dial and listening to the account again from the beginning.
--James Rosenau, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, 1961 (6th Ed., 1968) p. 80 Rosenau is brilliant and I am not. But one can't help but ask the question that didn't occur to him: What if any of these things had changed? What if, for instance, broadcast technology DID involve a level of permanence similar to that of text? Would that change things? (I actually doubt it has, all that much at least.) Too science-fictional, you say? Well, Aristotle discussed machines running themselves in the Politics, in a passage that reads as fresh as if it were written yesterday. The moral, for myself: Think through the implications of shifts in your assumptions.

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