The Learning Curve For New Technology Can Take Decades, But Human Will Is The Ultimate Determinate Of Change.
By Thomas J. Roach
The 20th century ended with vast expansion of the global communication network. Now, as we near the quarter century mark of the 21st century, it seems that network is closing.
Most notably, China is imposing restrictions on what its citizens can access on the World Wide Web, and U.S. companies are exploring the potential to police what is posted on social media. How governments and companies react to these trends could be crucial to their survival.
History Seems to Repeat Itself
The 20th century also began with world-changing new communication technology, then transitioned into a phase of restricted and manipulated public discourse. President Woodrow Wilson appointed a committee of fledgling PR professionals headed by George Creel to use newspapers and radio broadcasts to manufacture support for U.S. entry into World War I.
A member of Creel’s committee, Edward Bernays, published a book titled The Engineering of Consent. A few years later, Joseph Goebbels would cite the Creel committee as his inspiration for the mass media driven Nazi propaganda campaign that helped elect Adolph Hitler and later spread disinformation ahead of the German army as it decimated Europe. In Russia, following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Party banned criticism of government policies and shut down all sources of news not under its control.
In both centuries the corporate world reflected the authoritarian political trends. In the early 1900s, a scientific management theory authored by Frederick Taylor used time-and-motion studies to script manual labor jobs, eliminating opportunities for workers to think and make suggestions.
The Great Depression and World War II added to the negative influence of Taylorism. In the 1930s, laborers with jobs feared losing them if they spoke up, and in the 1940s, everyone was constrained by military discipline. The U.S. emerged in the 1950s with a rigid, top-down, follow-orders-and-don’t-ask-questions management structure.
In the 21st century the potential for control and manipulation is also great. Large corporations own most newspapers and broadcast news channels. The workplace is still an open environment, but much of our communication has shifted online where company and government officials have access to every email and text we send. In politics, campaign strategists conduct focus groups and surveys to determine voter preferences and design messages to attract votes for ambitious candidates who may have no concern for the issues they are voicing.
The point-in-time parallels suggest a dark picture of our future, but perhaps not. In the last century, the mediated iron cage of modernity was overcome by the human desire for open expression and participative decision-making. Allied armies defeated Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union went bankrupt and yielded to glasnost. And the George Deming-led post-war quality movement transformed authoritarian Japan and put U.S. workers back in control of their environment with employee surveys and quality circles.
The learning curve for new technology can take decades, but human will is the ultimate determinate of change. Just as chisels and swords are extensions of our hands, smart phones are an extension of our eyes and ears, and computers are an extension of our minds. In the end, human social needs, not technology, drive human communication.
China and Russia may seem threatening, but their media tactics are self-destructive. Like generals preparing for the last war, they are disrupting and clogging the flow of communication inside and outside their borders in the tradition of Creel and Barneys and Goebbels.
But the path to world influence and prosperity in the 21st century is an information highway where innovators and leaders have unlimited access to ideas, and where communication is spontaneous and ongoing. Most egregiously, their efforts to stifle feedback are inhibiting their own ability to adapt at a time when history is measured in nanoseconds.
The missile gap of the 20th century will be echoed in the communication gap in the 21st. Nations and corporations that use new media to build walls ultimately will be eclipsed by those that use the new technology to tear them down.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]