From an evolutionary perspective people don’t change much. At the level of our DNA we’re not vastly different from Palaeolithic humans. We need to eat the same diets, more or less, and should follow roughly the same patterns of exercise. We are rigid and inflexible in these genetic matters.
The circuitry of our brains on the other hand is infinitely flexible. Martin Seligman’s work on failure reflects the downside of this. People who repeatedly experience failure will learn how to feel helpless and fail even more. The reason isn’t just a learned pattern of responses but a chemical reworking of the brain that predisposes people to giving up.
The upside, as positive psychologists and cognitive psychologists know, is that if people begin implementing patterns of behaviour with positive outcomes, the brain will rewire for success.
That principle lies behind many of the major changes in the communications landscape over millennia. Though we don't change fundamentally, psychologically we evolve and adapt rapidly – the evolution of the alphabet (and the development of a phonetic symbolism for experience), writing (and the evolution of abstraction), printing (and the birth of objectivity)…. Computing?
I think the issue has to be addressed along three main lines of inquiry and we touched on them above:
• Memory and collective reflection
• What we know
And the principle we bring to those issues is the simple one that whatever else stays constant, the brain will always adapt.
First though a few words on what is changing in communications.
The Changing Media Landscape
The 21st century has seen the proliferation of media types. If we go back over the past 500 years we can ascribe some form of categorisation to this change.
The printing press gave us books, pamphlets and political tracts. It led in time, once there was adequate distribution with the arrival of the train, to newspapers.
The invention of telegraphy eventually gave us the telegram and the telephone and when technologists played around with the wireless possibilities we were treated to the radio and then the TV. And in the meantime film was born.
There are a few major innovations behind the evolution of a media landscape many of us grew up with. Printing presses, trains, telegraphy/telephony, moving picture capture, and radio-diffusion.
What difference does the Internet make?
In terms of distribution the Internet takes the cost of picture/video distribution close to zero to the end-user/content producer. If that was its only contribution to change it would be a substantial one. It also makes distribution instantaneous. It is we rather than the product that is often not available.