Every day I hear about the Information Age, the Communication Revolution, and some new media technology that's about to change our lives forever. I admit that such a phenomenon is possible, but it doesn't happen as often as the Microsoft and AT&T touts would have us believe. In fact, there are only two media technologies of the entire 20th century that could be called revolutionary, and both date from the first half.
Radio was the first. It came into our homes and created what's now called the electronic hearth. Then TV came along and put a picture on it. Now we welcome hucksters galore, invading our privacy and convincing us that our dough is better off in their pocket. No media technology ever transformed American life as radically and as rapidly as these two have.
Not even the World Wide Web can compare, yet. Since a majority of American households are without a computer, the Web is mainly a commercial or industrial technology. Its attributes as a consumer technology are marketing oriented. If you don't believe it, just click here to send me all your money. In its infancy, the Web is a hodge-podge of old media technologies including telegraph, telephone, facsimile, and even television. Using a computer to encode and decode the messages and manage the stream of information makes this mixed bag seem more efficient than it really is. Individual pieces, however, are still weak links. For example, the keyboards that we use to send E-Mail instantly have a layout designed to retard typing. If 19th century typists worked too fast, they jammed the mechanisms.
For the Web to become a mass medium instead of high-tech yellow pages, it must have three things. There has to be an integrated technology designed for easy, flexible, and rapid access to all its components - text, graphics, sound, moving pictures. The whole enchilada, right now. Next it must have content that people want to consume for entertainment, perhaps in groups. Finally, the Web needs to be a profitable enterprise unto itself. This combination is still a decade or so away.
In the second half of the waning century, I consider three media technologies important, and all are incremental improvements to TV. The first is remote control, itself a low-powered radio system. Remote control made that electronic hearth even cozier, turned us into couch potatoes, spawned cross-gender psychological studies, and made it easier to select from a wider array of TV channels. Which is what communication satellites, important media technology number two, gave us. The Cable TV industry co-opted the first two generations of satellites, sold itself as TV worth paying for, and replaced the broadcast networks as our primary distribution scheme for all TV signals.
The third media technology on my list is the VCR. With this device, we became the masters of the medium. Instead of having some shirt at Television City or BBD&O make decisions for us, we can now program our own TV sets. And of course, we use this empowering technology to record "The Young and The Restless" so we can catch it after work, and occasionally to check out the latest Triple-X title from the Smut Hut around the corner. But we're talking TV, not taste.
Taken as a group, remote control, communication satellites, and the VCR have altered the way we watch TV and our expectations from that and future audio-visual media. While not revolutionary technologies, these three can certainly be called evolutionary. So what the World Wide Web needs is something like the VCR. After all, everybody knows how to operate one of those.