Esko Kilpi photo. Painting by Signe Scheel

Why we talk about information technologies and communication technologies

The printing press constituted a true revolution in communication. But what really happened as a wider societal consequence of that revolution? Let’s try to reconstruct the circumstances that preceded printing. We know that there was a live but dispersed scribal culture before the printing press. The cultural infrastructure was quite thin outside monasteries, a few libraries, and university cities such as Bologna. That led to a heavy reliance on the oral transmission of information, on storytelling and on narrative. The information culture of the time could perhaps be called half-spoken, half-written.

The influence of the scribe was greatly enhanced because of a complementary character, the copyist. At first, the shift from script to print produced a social culture that was not very different from the one produced by scribes although the copyist lost his job as a result of the new technology. The writer - printer workflow was not very different from the scribe - copyist process, if looked at from the outside. Of course there was a huge increase in the output of books and a huge reduction in the man-hours required to turn them out. The first change after the technological innovation was a significant increase in productivity.

But then, the communications revolution of print caused remarkable changes in information-related habits that led to even wider social changes. The well-informed man had to spend a part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow-men — reading. Another societal development was the Sunday newspapers replacing church going. Sermons used to be coupled with news about local and foreign affairs. The new media companies utilizing the new technology handled news gathering and circulation logistics much more efficiently than the earlier (news) media monopoly, the church.

The most noteworthy social changes took place in mundane daily practices. To hear and talk, you have to come together. To read encourages you to draw apart.

The notion that a society can be regarded as a bundle of separate units, represented and described by separate units of information, supported the principle that detached people can be represented through a system of disconnected political parties. The reading public and society was very different from the one before. It was not only detached, it became atomistic and individualistic. As a result, the political system of detached democracy was born.

Learning, which used to take place through oral interaction in groups, was now the activity of the individual. The picture of the solitary student in the library reading room was transferred to classrooms and the architectures of education. As a result, we still widely believe that it is the detached individual who learns.

According to some scholars, print metaphorically silenced the spoken word. “The orators of Rome gave way to the men of letters.” Written text was about facts and talk was cheap. Talk was just talk.

From this point on, people tended to see information and communication as two separate domains, not only for technological reasons, but because of the historical developments described above.

We are now again going through another revolution in communication. The way the written word is used on Twitter or on Facebook is closer to the oral transmission of information than to writing. Through combining communication and information technologies, we are creating a much richer cognitive tapestry than the separate (ICT) information and communication systems were capable of. And instead of drawing apart, we can now come (digitally) together around contexts and information.

The culture is, again, half-spoken, half-written, but with a few extraordinary new features. The Internet redefines what local interaction is. Physical proximity gives way to contextual proximity and everything can be dynamically linked. The world is interdependent.

The printing press separated information and communication. The Internet and the new social technologies are causing the two to converge. This is one of the reasons why messaging services/platforms such as WhatsApp and Slack are so strong today and why conversational commerce is such a hot topic.

The first change is again a remarkable increase in productivity, but again, it does not end there. Until now, our ability to process data has far outstripped our ability to communicate. The real promise is in new information-related communicative practices, the revolutionary conversational interfaces and the social/political innovations built on interdependence and interaction that are still ahead of us.

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