Time was when we touched life. We hunted and gathered our food, we sat together around the fire, we talked. Some say that was when we became "human," sharing stories with friends and family in the fire's glow. There were some obvious problems with life back in that particular day. Large animals were inclined to eat us, life expectancy was about a week from Thursday, and there was no Novocain and no cable. But still we had each other and the fire — BFF.
The millennia cranked around and true civilization evolved — indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and most important, TV. After all those centuries of talking to each other we finally created the big talking screen that took the heat off. No more "chunk a log on the fire and make up a tall tale to explain winter." You just hit the remote and let the celebrities do your talking. Some thought TV was a window on the world, others called it a great wasteland. Truth probably lived somewhere in between. But whether we loved or hated the box in the corner, television changed existence for much of humanity. Increasingly reality lived behind a screen. The world was "out there" somewhere. We could see it, but we couldn't touch it. It talked to us, but we had no way to talk back.
Venture out of your cave today and you will see that the great mandala has spun around yet another time, and for many the media transformation is complete; life is touched though a screen — a touchscreen on a smartphone. We touch the world though our screens, we talk to them and they talk back. If the great carnivores still roamed the plains, they would wax fat and lazy — picking us off like jellybeans as we stalk the streets mesmerized by the screens in our hands with wires running to the speakers in our ears. Much of our life, personal and professional, has taken up residence behind the screens of those little boxes. We can debate anew whether that is a good, convenient thing, or a horrible dehumanizing thing. Winning either side of the argument will not change the reality. Which means that the relevant question becomes how do we live well, live humanely and creatively within the current reality? The screen is the new fireplace and, I would assert, like life around the fireplace in those ancient caves, the way we use this screen to shape our stories of ourselves will play a large part in defining our contemporary humanity.
Throughout history the media which contain our communication have themselves influenced the nature of our communication. The medium is the bucket we bring to the beach, the message is the sand we pack into it. The castle that we build, the message we construct, is the joint product of sand and bucket, of our intention and the nature of the medium. Our new bucket has certain inclinations. The direct descendant of the telephone, the personal computer and the Internet; the smartphone favors the brief and the immediate. That is not to say that that person at the table next to you at Starbuck's is going to stop yammering away — "And she was like, and I was like and so like I said I like Ike and she went…" People will still be enthralled by the sound of their own voice. But that blended media heritage has led to some fascinating new possibilities and inclinations. I want to touch on just two.
First is the observation that the inversion of broadcasting is complete. We often still think of a particular portion of the media as being made up of "broadcasters," a single message source that "broadcasts" a message to us through the "mass media." That model still applies to a certain extent. However with increasing regularity social media such as Facebook and Google+ and Twitter invert that concept. We — as individuals — are now the active source of the message, we are the broadcasters. We post, we tweet and the message chains out to dozens, hundreds, occasionally thousands and millions — whether we want it to or not.
Which brings us to the second and more important notion: what are we "broadcasting?" If you have read this far, you are apparently among the digital minority. The data indicate that those who live through the screen favor linguistic brevity. I suppose. But I also wonder. You see, it is not that the people who tweet and text cannot write complex sentences and paragraphs that exceed 142 characters, it is that the software will not allow messages that exceed that limit. It is a strange sort of editorial control: We're not all that concerned with what you say, we're just going to limit how many characters you use to say it.
This all leads me to wonder how the notions of selectivity, quality and complexity will play out in this new shifted reality. Social networks, as currently configured, make communication with a select few difficult. My guess is someone will soon see this as a business opportunity. Communication on the screen also currently privileges the short, the brief, the simple. That does not eliminate the possibility of complex, graceful and artful constructions — but it does reduce the options. I have no doubt that someone will eventually create the app to address that gap.