There is a tendency for the people in every era to see their own time as unique, even revolutionary. The changes we see occurring in front of us strike us as being paradigm shifts; we’ll never do things in the same way again, maybe we’ll even be fundamentally changed as individuals.
I was drawn to consider this phenomenon while reading Walter Benjamin’s classic essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
In our own time there has been much comment (including on Collected Voices) about the changes to media and society connected to the development of the social web, as well as speculation as to their consequences. Much of this analysis in interesting and incisive, and there is a running theme that we are witnessing an unprecedented shift to a media space that is constructed by its own audience.
How striking then, was this section of Benjamin’s essay (written in 1937):
For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character… At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.
Benjamin saw the democratisation of the media as the key change in the art and society of his own time. Historical connections between these changes in our own time have also been noted by Christopher Fahey at graphpaper.com, who compares the social web to the coffee houses of the C17th.
It is easy to be intoxicated by the new possibilities that are opening up, but we shouldn’t be above looking to the past for parallels with events today.
It might help to remember the academic hype surrounding globalization theory during the 90s. Globalization was an idea that seemed to describe perfectly certain events and trends on the international scene. Suddenly you couldn’t get a book on international relations published, or a research grant if your subject wasn’t related to globalization.
However as theorists such as Hirst and Thompson really started to interrogate the theory, they questioned whether rises in international trade and communications were really any different to the increases seen in the C19th or indeed throughout human history.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether web 2.0 is the continuation or acceleration of a long term historical trend towards the free flow of information and its democratisation, or whether it represents a new, essentially different phenomenon.