As digital media become the dominant means of communication, they will usher in a new paradigm, transforming how we think, behave, relate, and create. A business consultant and communications theorist offers a method for understanding the changes we will face—and for better managing those changes.
By M. Rex Miller
The Digital Dynamic
How Communications Media
Shape Our World
Marshall McLuhan famously declared,
“The medium is the message.”
Watching a war on television is very different from reading about the war in a newspaper. Television began entering homes less than 60 years ago and swiftly changed almost every aspect of human life—from business and education to politics and sports. Now, digital communications—computers, PDAs, the Internet, Blackberries, etc.—are bringing another communications revolution that is likely to produce an even more radical transformation of our lives.
For clues to what may happen in the years ahead, let’s look at what occurred as a result of two previous revolutions in the dominant medium of communications—the shift from oral communications to printed media in the fifteenth century and the very recent shift from printed media to broadcasting.
The Print and Broadcast Revolutions
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type about 1454 and printed the Bible, he initiated a revolution in communications. Gutenberg’s Bible became a best-seller, and the art of printing spread rapidly. Within 70 years, Europe had more than 1,000 printers, and books were widely available. Later, newspapers and magazines proliferated.
Printed words, unlike speech, remain fixed in space and motionless over time. This permanence allows readers to return to the same words again and again—a process that permits thoughts to be examined and tested from many different perspectives. The dominance of print communication created more-analytic, rational minds that see the world as parts assembled in an orderly whole, like the words in a sentence. So printed literature enabled linear, “rational” thought to largely supplant the “irrational” thought of the oral world. Understanding through analysis began replacing understanding through dialogue. With printing, the West exploded with new discoveries. Books nourished the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, science, and much else.
Print continues to play a critically important role in communications— just as does speaking—but it lost its dominance in about 1950 to television, which now feeds more information into people’s minds than does print.
Television showed the world to itself. Hundreds of millions of people sitting at home could watch stirring events in faraway places and see the world’s leaders more frequently and up closer than their next-door neighbors. Television broke down barriers that had separated people from each other.
Poor people now could see how rich people actually lived. Whites and blacks could see the realities of racial segregation. The American people could see the horrors of the Vietnam War, and their government could not explain away its failures. Print had made reason king and stimulated reflective thinking, but now broadcast elevated desire and emotion and encouraged reflexive thinking—the kind of thinking we do while driving a car. Television demands only our attention and reaction, requiring of us no analysis, no historical perspective, and no connection to any other event. Printed words drive us toward reaching a conclusion or having a perspective, but TV images leave information open to many meanings.
They encourage us to keep our options open and “go with the flow.” The Print Era lasted for 400 years, coming to an end within the lifetime of people still alive. The Broadcast Era will have a much shorter run. Already, broadcast’s dominance is yielding to the digital media, and they will likely become the dominant media of communication by about 2010.
The Emergence of A Digital Culture
Digital media combine text, graphics, sound, and data in such a way that we experience things in a much more integrated format—multisensory, multimedia, and multinetworked. As a result, boundaries separating disciplines, organizations, structures, and people begin to dissolve. We see convergences of things that once were sharply separated. The message and the messenger become a holographic reality capable of infinite change and complexity. In a digital environment, things that might take decades to surface within natural systems can show up within minutes. The threat of a terrorist attack or an outbreak of a deadly disease reverberates globally, systemwide.
As a result of digital media, our basis of knowing and understanding is shifting to an interactive, global, anytime, anywhere, multimedia experience with countless sources to explore and test. This experience is quite different from the intellectually passive experience of watching television or the emotionally distant experience of reading. Consequently, our minds and bodies will undergo a rewiring to support this different sensory experience.
Convergence is perhaps the key characteristic of the coming Digital Era. Convergence is an inherent property of our digital medium of information and communications, because all its many forms (text, image, data, sound) can exist on a single medium, such as a disc, and reproduced through a common digital language of bits and bytes. Digital data makes no distinction between Romeo and Juliet and that snapshot of your child on a pony, between geological calculations and the sound of a Bach cantata. They are all merely sequences of zeros and ones.
In the digital world, the boundaries that once separated physics, poetry, metaphysics, and other disciplines are beginning to blur. Nanotechnology
is emerging as a worldtransforming science, bringing together physics, chemistry, and biology. AT&T Broadband, AOL, and Time Warner Inc. all began as separate businesses—a phone company, an Internet service provider, and a publisher; each was based on different technologies (telephone wire, cybertechnologies, printing press). But digital technologies provided them all with a common platform, and they merged.
The new digital world is characterized by seven qualities:
1. Interconnection: We used to live in a “domino world,” in which one change logically caused the next. Now we have entered a chainreaction world of exponential shifts. Interconnection means that our problems and opportunities are intimately linked. Emerging networks— virtual communities based on common interests—have begun to level our hierarchical organizations.
2. Complexity: Complex systems behave in complex ways. Simply changing a line of computer code can cause ripple effects that move through the systems in many different ways. Faced with such complexity, old analytical tools cannot anticipate the potential consequences of actions. A single word from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan may cause financial markets to collapse and even governments to fall.
3. Acceleration: Each new technology and concept leads to faster change, so that change compounds and accelerates the pace of human life. The increasing speed of communications accelerates business transactions, which accelerates production and marketing, which accelerates capital growth, which accelerates investment, which accelerates further the development of new technologies.
4. Intangibility: In the new digital environment, we have little or no connection to the original sources of information and things we buy, use, or believe. We’re moving away from a world we can touch and hold to a world that operates on intangibles like information and reputation. Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm, offered some tangible services such as accounting, but it also offered intangibles, such as its credibility and reputation. When its client
Enron imploded in scandal, Andersen’s reputation went up in smoke.
5. Convergence: Print, graphics, sound, and data can all reside in a digital medium, such as a CD or DVD, in the form of bits and bytes of zeros and ones. In digital media, the past boundaries of knowledge and organizations blur, crumble, and eventually integrate in new ways.
6. Immediacy: Digital media shrink the time allowed between question and answer, request and fulfillment. We are now expected to respond to the world with a speed similar to that required of fighter pilots in combat. An F-16 pilot must master a different set of rules for decision making.
Author M. Rex Miller has spent the last 25 years researching social change through the lens of communications. Three of his passions—communications, religion, and business—powerfully shape his new book, Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church.
The book presents the matrix he developed to show how institutions transformed during the successive shifts in the main communications media. Miller focuses primarily on applying the matrix to the Christian church and offers rich insights into how religion has shifted through the centuries and is likely to shift in the future.
The Millennium Matrix (2004, 279 pages, cloth, $23.95) was published by Jossey-Bass and may be ordered through the Futurist Bookshelf, www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm.
About the Millennium Matrix
Four Communications Eras
Oral Era Print Era Bard. Play, recitation, ritual, ceremony, family, elders, and genealogy provide continuity with the past. Book. History, indexing, encyclopedias, dictionaries, libraries, catalogs, museums, schools, and organizations help preserve the past.
Sense of Identity
Perception of Reality
Sense of Time
Medium of Exchange
Tribal village. Each person is a composite of the community. Interaction is restricted to a small, localized population. Independent individual. Concepts and principles inform character.
People come in contact with a wider range of individuals through the thoughts and ideas of teachers and through books from around the world. Individuals feel autonomous and can think private thoughts.
Relational. Truth’s credibility is tied to the messenger’s credibility, because message and messenger are tied together.
Principle. Truth is based on the content of the message alone, because written language developed structure and rules (logic, history, analysis, expert opinion, and other tools of deduction) to determine meaning.
Dialectic. Open-ended form of question and answer. This method does not aim for a fixed conclusion but attempts to reach equilibrium between two juxtaposed concepts.
Logic. Linear thought arrives at an either–or conclusion. Print reaches its destination with greater efficiency than open-ended conversation, and logic offers closure.
Revelation. Understanding comes from revelation, direct experience, and knowledge handed down over generations. Knowing something is linked to understanding the internal nature of a thing.
Law of identity. Understanding begins by recognizing the objective reality of things. Knowing is linked to seeing external distinctions.
Process-centered. The search for truth and understanding comes by sitting at the feet of a master or guru. Learning is a preparatory process, and the skills of learning and inquiry are often the focus of the teacher and his or her student(s).
Content-centered. The orientation is toward standardized learning.
Students are batched according to age or learning level. The material is taught consistently to all, and students work to achieve tangible milestones.
Farm. Focus is on the land and the goal is to grow the crop. Harvest is the reward.
Factory. Goal is to produce more at lower cost. Reducing things and labor to their simplest components along with a logical process of assembly will lead to productivity.
Land. Acquiring land and developing its use. Capital and manufacturing. Wealth acquisition centers on the use of capital and labor to produce goods and services.
Present or presence. Time is a continuous present because we have no recorded history, only retold stories. The retelling of experience makes past events seem current.
Past or objectification. The past is separated from the present. Print creates a sense of passing time because we have the means of comparing past words and descriptions with current thought and reality. Time marches on. A word read is a word in the past. The contrast between past words and current thoughts creates a sensation of progress— moving forward from the permanent record.
Steward. A steward acts as a caretaker for the entire household, taking the perspective of the owner and fulfilling not only his functions but his intentions.
Manager. Economic entities are characterized by command and control, division of labor, vertical integration (owning all the resources and means of production instead of outsourcing). Management is based on the premise that people need to be structured and tightly supervised in order to be effective.
Reliability. There is value in what is tried and true. Productivity. Productivity is valued. To get it, break work down into its smallest tasks and focus effort to accomplish each task as quickly as possible. Meeting the need. People will take what they get. Improving standards. People take what they need.
Barter and trade. The ethic of reciprocity in one-on-one valuations. Currency. A rational means of standardizing valuation and providing a flexible, efficient means of exchange.
Symbolic. Art is a means of interpreting the meaning of life and the sacred. Intricate and disciplined symbolic language is developed to reveal the multidimensional reality behind the stories and characters of faith and lore.
Perspective. Art seeks to become visually true or accurate. Art also is expressed from the artist’s perspective, whereas the symbolic language of early art removed the vantage point of the artist in order to portray a mystical reality.
The following chart by M. Rex Miller shows how shifts in communications media can affect other aspects of human life.
Broadcast Era Digital Era
Documentary. Excerpts from newspapers, magazines, television programs, news audiotape, and videotape help viewers research and relive the past. Database. Networking, user groups, FAQs (frequently asked questions), search engines, databases, and virtual communities help to examine the past and model it toward the future.
Crowded stranger. Image and impressions inform character in a fluid, ephemeral world. We interact with an even wider range of people through television and radio. These unattached and often unselected sources aim at a broad audience. The individual as spectator participates vicariously.
Cybersoul or anonymous intimacy. Individuals design separate identities for different roles and contexts. Identity comes from the multitude of interactions from around the globe. We can be a member of numerous communities and experiment with numerous identities.
Existential. Truth is validated through experience, the force of conviction, or some tangible outcome. The concrete reality of the moment takes priority over distant and abstract concepts.
Contextual. Truth is malleable and relevant within particular contexts of meaning. Community (virtual or otherwise) tests and validates reality.
Fluid logic. Thought is a process that flows like water, leading to many possible outcomes. Conclusions are not fixed and will change, and the results can take quantum leaps. So the answer to any logical question is, “It depends.” Context and bias are part of the equation.
Systems thinking. Understanding how the parts of a particular system interrelate and how the system works over time leads to determining probable outcomes. Reality is complex and interconnected. Individual events appear random. Instead of a causal chain, multiple potential outcomes are measured by probability.
Uncertainty principle. Understanding reflects the unique and intimate interplay between the observed and the observer and is no longer considered fixed.
Chaos theory. Understanding reflects the fact that reality is fluid, highly complex, and interconnected. It behaves as a system rather than as discrete events and is understandable by means of general patterns.
Experience-centered. Text learning is supplemented with movies and videos. Group presentations, participation, and life experience are often factored in. The focus is on individual students and their unique needs. This creates a proliferation of curricula and services to address those needs.
Context-centered. Teachers create a collaborative learning community.
The collective experience takes priority over individual and private needs.
Service. The goal becomes to use information about consumers to make products they want or to create demand. This shifts the focus to collecting and using information in the design, production, and delivery of goods and services.
Federation. Work is organized in networks of independent producers that collaborate in production. At the same time, the consumers and producers collaborate in the production and delivery of goods.
Distribution and debt. These tools accelerate growth. The shifting tastes of a culture shaped by broadcast create opportunities for companies that can quickly respond to those tastes. This shifts the focus toward more efficient means of distribution.
Creativity and community. The intellectual content of product is now more valuable than the material itself. This creates volatile markets. Building a loyal and interactive following is the key to building longterm wealth.
Future or impermanence. History is dead, and the future does not exist.
A sound-image captures awareness but leaves nothing to connect it to. Broadcast media wipe out past references. There is no past—only a fleeting present.
Virtual or time travel. The world is simultaneously seen, heard, felt, and experienced. The future as well as the past can be seen in the present due to highly realistic representations of past events and scenarios of possible future events.
Leader. Leadership becomes more important than management. The focus is on how to release the potential of individual workers as opposed to how best to control them.
Interweaver. Networks, virtual teams, and virtual corporations characterize the new economic system. Managers become facilitators or weavers of networks. Management takes on a less definable structure and behaves more like a web of collaboration.
Quality. Quality of services is prized; both the process and the whole are important. Lower cost and improved performance are not contradictory.
Creativity. Creativity is valued in the interactive relationship of consumer and producer.
Creating want. People take what they want. Creating fulfillment. People design what they want.
Credit. Accelerates the cycle of transactions. Allows for local and global transactions to occur with equal ease.
Techno-barter. Different mediums of exchange are employed, including forums such as eBay, standardization of the euro, frequent-user currency, affinity programs, reverse auctions.
Concept or process. The artist moves away from a focus on content to a focus on process, approach, and medium. Familiar expressions are deconstructed (as in Cubism) and irrational patterns of chance are explored (as in Jackson Pollock’s work).
Interaction or participation. The observer must be drawn into the artistic experience and own the artist’s perspective through participation in it. The line between artist and observer blurs. Art within a digital medium is completely malleable. The artist may become more of a facilitator of real-time experiments in altered perspectives stimulated by the content and the observer’s unique response, as in Camille
Utterback’s installation art.
Source: Adapted from The Millennium Matrix by M. Rex Miller (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
ing, because there is little or no time for reflection in an environment that changes at high speed in an irregular, disorderly, and unpredictable manner.
7. Unpredictability: Complex, highly interactive systems behave unpredictably.
As a result, wellintentioned attempts to improve conditions may actually worsen them. A legal system that heavily penalizes physicians who make mistakes may cause the doctors to give up their practices, thus increasing the number of people who are sick or incapacitated.
Rethinking Our Institutions
The digital media require us to rethink our institutions. Our educational institutions, for example, are likely to rely increasingly on the digital media—and for good reason. So many of the challenges that schools currently face—from rising costs and textbook obsolescence to flexible schedules and parental involvement—have solutions in the new technologies.
Today, children not yet in school are adeptly using computers to send messages to their friends and downloading MP3 music files from the Internet. The kids soon learn how to use search engines such as Google to get information and put together multimedia presentations for class projects. These digital kids are learning to think and work differently from the TV kids a generation ago.
In the emerging digital culture, children do not grind out their lessons by rote memorization. They no longer sit passively in front of a television and say “Huh?” when asked what they learned. Children now are absorbed in an interactive-game environment, pursuing treasure hunts of knowledge over the Web. They integrate what they learn, expand far beyond the assignment, and retain a high level of enthusiasm. Youngsters using digital media are pushing education toward self-learning, and it’s likely that self-directed learning will become more and more the norm. Teachers will move away from being grade specialists to becoming general facilitators handling several grades at a time. In a virtual little red schoolhouse, technology will afford a shift back to the teaching relationship. Continuity will lead to greater effectiveness, and that effectiveness will create opportunities for mentors and higher levels of fulfillment for all concerned.
But there is a danger to this new form of learning. What happens when our play allows us to simulate and rehearse reality? We applaud simulation training for pilots or physicians—in fact, we demand it. We want them to be able to handle the chaos of a crisis with icy coolness. However, when this simulation technology seeps into the hands of our youth, we can unwittingly create cold-blooded killers, as we saw with 14-year-old Michael Carneal, the boy who methodically carried out his murders at a school in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. Carneal killed each victim by one accurate shot. Investigators found he liked to play a video game that required shooting “human” targets. This was like the training soldiers receive to kill the enemy.
Facing the Digital Challenge
Clearly, managing the transition into the Digital Era will not be easy or problem free. We must expect challenges in most of our institutions, so we need to rethink them and build them well for what lies ahead.
A few years ago, I spent several hours with an oil company executive charged with designing and constructing the firm’s oil tankers. This helped me construct my own mental picture of how to build for an environment of turbulent change.
Building an oil tanker is an amazing feat. The number of details is mind-boggling, and the obstacles are incredible, especially if it is being designed to face the North Atlantic, the most treacherous environment of all.
Remember the Titanic!
North Atlantic tankers must be able to withstand a head-on collision with an iceberg at seven knots. Without dropping anchor, they must maintain a stable position while buffeted by 50-foot waves. To cope with such a turbulent, hostile environment, the North Atlantic tankers have multiple redundant systems acting as safeguards and backups.
They have powerful stabilizers on their sides to keep them in position even while enormous waves crash over them.
The North Atlantic tankers give us a phenomenal metaphor for today’s institutions to consider as they rebuild themselves for the challenges of the Digital Era. Today’s institutions must navigate stormy seas of social and technological change. Unfortunately, we are still building the social equivalent of vacation cruise liners: large, slow structures made for calm, balmy seas and friendly ports of call. These “cruise-liner” institutions may be a little more userfriendly, but they are built for calm seas and a sunny horizon. And that is not what we are likely to get.
Today, we need institutions built like North Atlantic tankers to meet the colossal waves of largely unpredictable social change. They need to be highly agile and fast-changing, with extra capacity, awareness of the environment, powerful stabilizers, and buffering, like the double hulls of the tankers.
Redesigning our institutions for stresses and opportunities of the
Digital Era is now the greatest challenge we face. ¦
About the Author
M. Rex Miller is vice president of sales and chief
concierge for Spencer Furniture and author of The Millennium Matrix (JosseyBass,
2004). He is a successful businessman with degrees in theology and communications theory.
His address is 1409 Dartmouth Drive,
Southlake, Texas 76092. Telephone 1-214-
498-3055; e-mail email@example.com; Web site www.millenniummatrix.com.
Miller will be speaking on this subject at WorldFuture 2005: Foresight, Innovation, and Strategy, the World Future Society’s annual meeting, to be held in Chicago July 29-31.
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