Culture & Media

Electracy: The Current Shift

It’s obvious we’re living in a time of major technological advances.  We have gone from cassettes to CDs and DVDs, from Walkmen to  iPods, from car phones to smartphones, and from anything on film or in hard copy to digital.   Really, nearly everything is available in a digital format.  Theoretically, Furman could function as a completely paperless campus with little difficulty.  But more important than the ability to eliminate paper on campus is the fact that for the student body as a whole, the change would not be unusual.  As of this year, our post office has started sending students emails to alert them about a package that is waiting for them, rather than placing a piece of paper in their mailbox.  Personally, I wondered why they hadn’t started doing so a while ago.  That simple switch from paper to digital notifications seemed natural to me, overdue in fact.

Often, the various developments in digital technology seem more a matter of convenience to us than anything else.  We don’t view the changes as very significant; we just seem to take them as they come, simply taking for granted that we now live in a digital society.  However, the shift towards a digital society has not already taken place; it is currently happening.  All the technological transitions I listed above have occurred only within the past two decades.  Google, the search engine giant without which none of us can imagine functioning, was simply Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s research project at Standford in only 1996 and incorporated two years later in 1998.  The invention that revolutionized Internet search and the way the Web is used can still be considered a young company.

This shift I’m referring to is an idea that Gregory Ulmer spends some time discussing in his writings, the shift towards electracy.  He compares the great shift that occurred with the Greek invention of the alphabet, bringing about a civilization that would be based on literacy, no longer orality.  A society based on solely oral communication and transmission of ideas would look very different from a society which relies on written communication.  Each method of communication requires different skills, presents its own challenges, and unique ways of processing information.  Obviously, the shift to literacy did not render oral communication obsolete, but it did significantly change civilization.  Similarly, the current shift towards electracy, where more and more communication takes place in an electronic venue, is adding another dimension to the way our society interacts, but still changing it significantly nonetheless.

In fact, we may already be beginning to process information differently.  Nicholas Carr addressed this phenomenon in his article that appeared in The Atlantic in 2008.  He admits that he’s noticed a difference in his attention span and the way his mind focuses on a task, and I must say that his description sounds awfully familiar.  Like Carr, I used to read all the time.  I could sit reading for hours, getting caught up in the story with little effort.  Now, I find it hard to keep my mind focused on the material in front of me, leisure reading or not.  It’s not that I’m any less interested in reading; I just have to give my mind breaks in between short spurts of digesting the information.  I was able to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in elementary school without much effort, but now I hesitate to begin reading something longer than 30 pages in one sitting.  According to Carr and several of the other sources he cites, this phenomenon could very well be due to the fast pace of the Internet.  We google a subject, then jump from link to link, only skimming and browsing articles and Wikipedia entries to glean what we need in no time at all.  With that option, who wants to revert to the old method of reading dozens of pages of a detailed book to find a few key facts?

Now that’s just one example of how digital technology could be having more effect on us than merely providing convenience or time-savers, but it makes sense.  And half the time, we don’t even think about it.  I skim over dozens of posts in my Facebook newsfeed in less than a minute, I use Google on my smartphone to look up that movie title I couldn’t remember, and I browse through 5 new emails while walking to class.  Digital technology is not only providing instant information at my fingertips; it is training my brain to gather that information in a matter of seconds.  Some people argue that this shift will be detrimental to our society, others (Larry Page and Sergey Brin, for example)  think the possibilities are endless.  Such has been the debate during any major shift or advance in history.  However, we are still in the transition period, and the true extent of electracy’s effects will not be known for some time.

Gregory Ulmer, “Electracy: Introduction”

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Discussion Questions for COM 121

The first table included in Ulmer’s article compared orality, literacy, and electracy across very defined lines. Is there too much fundamental overlap to divide the three that decisively?  Also, how can the Internet be considered an “institution” like the church or school?

Carr spent some time discussing Daniel Bell’s idea of “intellectual technologies,” in that we adopt qualities of devices that extend our mental capabilities, using the early use of the mechanical clock as an example.  Other than the fast-paced speed our minds seem to process information, what other qualities have we picked up from digital technology? 


2 thoughts on “Electracy: The Current Shift

  1. Pingback: Information Overload? | Media Mosaics

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