Thoughts on Digital Information in Culture

In the 20th century, electronic media (such as radio, movie, and television) became widely used throughout the industrial world. In the last quarter of the 20th century, electronic media also included computers. In the last decade of the 20th century, telecommunications networks to which computers could be connected further extended the media landscape in many areas. Although print remained the dominant information technology for formal interactions such as law, government, and the economy, electronic media became widely used in politics and in the popular culture; these media influenced how individuals and groups interacted with information and with each other.

According to Seldes (1960), some patterns of information use that are associated with electronic media resemble those in cultures demonstrating primary orality and others resemble those observed in literate cultures, and yet others were first observed when electronic media emerged. In general, electronic mass media require no special training to consume. Because it is consumed in large quantities as a group (although individuals may consume in isolation, large populations consume the same media that is broadcast at the same time), the content tends to reflect the values and tastes of the majority. In addition, the media diffuse rapidly and are ephemeral (similar to the dynamic nature of information in cultures with primary orality). Radio, television, and movies are electronic media that are expensive to produce, but inexpensive to consume. The costs are supported by advertising, and programmers seek to avoid offending either audience or advertiser. Further there is a small population of producers (who may gain political power as producers) compared to a large population of consumers (who are not producers).

Although Seldes’ observations continue to accurately describe the state of the mass media in 21st century society, the penetration of computers with multimedia capability and broadband Internet access has changed the nature of electronic communication for many sub-populations. When first introduced, using computers and information networks required specialized training, but increasingly, the training needed to participate in ICT-based communication is being learned informally and organically in an as-needed basis by most computer users. Consumption of information in ICT-rich post literate cultures occurs in diverse grouping arrangements; while lone consumers are still common, many consume in groups, and many of the groups are comprised of distributed individuals who are connected via information networks while consuming media. (I frequently watch sporting events by sharing comments over instant messaging with friends half way across the continent.) Especially since the widespread adoption of Web 2.0 models that depend on (and encourage) users to create content using the audio and video capacity that is built into many computer systems, the cost of producing content has decreased essentially to zero, so producing and distributing information in the ICT-rich post literate cultures is available to a level not previously available.