Working on the copy desk of newspapers in the 1980s, late into the evening
hours, we would sip coffee and sift through news reports and wire service photos from all over. Occasionally, as Atlanta editor Ralph McGill once said, we’d get a sense of our world, wheeling again towards the sun, alive with joys, struggling with sorrows, and all reflected in the photos and news reports that poured into the newsroom. We wished everyone could see what we were seeing, but in those days we could only print a tiny fraction of the day’s intelligence.
Those were the last days of hot lead typesetting and Western Union telegrams. We were glad that it was the end of an era. We were all too aware of the media’s constraints, and we wondered how things would look on the other side of the digital revolution that we knew was coming. We pretty much figured that, as with any revolution, there would be both ennobling and corrosive impacts.
What made the digital revolution so interesting was that it did not spring from the technology developed by media institutions, computer corporations or the defense department. Instead, to paraphrase John Adams, we saw the digital revolution first taking place in the hearts and minds of a global community of scientists, engineers, writers, philosophers, artists and visionaries. The technology emerged as part of the vision, not the other way around.
A look at media history tells us that a similar sense of community animated most of the great communications revolutions in history. Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly across Europe in the 1400s thanks to a community of craftsmen; Daguerre literally gave away photographic patents in 1839 and created a world community of photographers almost overnight; and Morse’s Code became the first universal software in the 1840s, even if, to his dismay, his telegraphic patents ended up in the hands of a monopoly. Even so, a community of critics who fought the telegraph monopoly funded Alexander Graham Bell’s work to create the telephone, and the global community of scientists investigating electromagnetic phenomena were the ones who created radio, television and satellite communications.
The benefits of these communication revolutions are well known to those of us living in the early twenty-first century; they include instant free global messaging; instant access to information and entertainment; cell phones and community- building applications; and the communications networks that support medical, scientific, cultural and political information exchanges around the globe.
Every revolution comes at an unexpected price. Printing triggered centuries of religious and political struggle; visual communication diluted and (some say) degraded political discourse; electronic communication submerged unique cultures and sometimes fostered xenophobia; and the digital revolution seems to be undermining the political culture that was created by the printing press while pulling the world closer together.
To understand these interesting times, a sense of history is a basic requirement. Without history, we are blind and powerless. With history, at the very least, we are not blind, and occasionally, we may perceive an opening for a real contribution to our common destiny.
Bill Kovarik, PhD Floyd, Virginia