Changing Communication Technology: Evolution or Revolution?
by Cathy Cupitt


This essay discusses the potential of new communication technologies to engender cultural change. Three main issues which will define whether such changes will be positive or negative are explored.

First there is a discussion of the biases inherent in the ‘techno-logic’ school of thought due to the ascendancy of scientific logic. A consequence of which is the generally enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of these new communication technologies. Individual, critical awareness is the only sure method of fighting fundamental biases of this nature, and so ensure an acceptable future rather than a frightening distopia.

Second, the politics of the power of information is examined. I look at who has a vested interest in information – who may try to shape any future, which includes such communication technologies, so that they retain their present power base. The general proliferation of computers is seen as a healthy sign, indicating that traditional power brokers are not getting everything their own way.

Finally I discuss how capitalism will sell the future to us: how much these technologies will cost us ideologically, physically, temporally and culturally, and whether these prices could be worth paying.

These new communication technologies can be seen as both a threat to the status quo and an opportunity for reform. Which they will turn out to be depends on the ethical choices of each individual taking part in the evolution of our culture. A revolutionary new level of freedom will only come about through individual responsibility for the choices we make while building the future.

Changing Communication Technology: Evolution or Revolution?

By Cathy Cupitt

If you couldn’t walk on the floor, you walked on the ceiling.
If you couldn’t walk on the ceiling, you walked on the walls,
and if you couldn’t walk on the walls you walked in them, encrypted1.

For many years now claims have been made about the benefits and disadvantages that new communication technologies will have on human society. It has also been suggested that new communication technology has changed both what we say and how we think, and that these effects will be both long-term, and fundamental to the formation of our cultural future. With suggestions like these being bandied about in the popular press and general conversation, I feel it is worth investigating some of the possible consequences of the wholesale adoption of new communication technologies.

On a relatively simple level the claim that new communication technologies will change what we say and how we think seems to be true. Inventions, explorations and discoveries have historically caused living languages to evolve, and our method of speech and thought is through language. Hence as new words and phrases related to communications technology have stopped being jargon and become part of common language, our way of thinking and speaking has changed to accommodate them. Words and phrases such as: telephone, TV, video, computer, internet, multimedia, software, commercial break, virtual reality, and so on, are all commonly recognised and used, and all are derived from communication technology of the twentieth century. But have these technologies had a deeper effect than this? The phrase “MTV generation” would seem to indicate that perceptions of time and other social norms may well have been affected by these technologies too.

It is the potential for fundamental change in our culture, much deeper than a few words added to our vocabularies, that interests theorists. Both the adulatory and alarmist theorists generally see these new technologies as a potential revolution – on the scale of the print or industrial revolutions – rather than as just another mechanism effecting evolution of language. These theorists predict an amalgamation of existing, and yet to be invented, communication technologies into one multi-purpose, multi-dimensional, multi-media machine, with the potential for instantaneous access to all the information stored on any online computer anywhere, accessible in any order the user desires. And every home – well almost every home – will have one.

Also evident in the development of the twentieth-century modes of information is a ever-increasing trend toward synchronous combinatory media. … The design of synchronous combinatory exchange is necessarily unlike that of written exchange. The organising principle of combinatory exchange in its simplest form is synchronicity rather than sequence.2

With this new “organising principle” mediating exchanges, there is the potential that a new plane of thinking and speaking will emerge, in which there are no longer merely the dimensions that gravity and time impose, but a multiplicity of virtual dimensions. A world in which we may indeed be able to ‘walk’ not only on the floor and the walls, but through them too. And a world where communication structures are so dissimilar to those of the present day that current ‘isms’ (racism, sexism, etc) have little or no meaning.

What distinguishes hypermedia is that it posits an information structure so dissimilar to any other in human experience that it is difficult to describe as a structure at all. It is non-linear, and therefore may seem an alien wrapping of language when compared to the historical path written communication has traversed.3

It is this vision of the future that has inspired the prediction that our culture will fundamentally change due to new communication technologies. The optimists say that this change will bring freedom – that we are on the verge of a new era of personal freedom. That these communication technologies will allow learning, communicating, and working to be undertaken at the pace of the user, in the style the user prefers, and on aspects the user finds most interesting, rather than in the homogeneous, undifferentiated processes used by a print culture.

The pessimists suggest a different, much bleaker future, in which a new power elite will emerge, and a new class of the information poor. They argue that until there is equal access to this technology, the utopian vision of the empowered individual is a long way off.

As David Trend points out, “we should not delude ourselves that these new technologies by themselves are capable of changing social relationships or economic structures”4. After all, a new information driven culture will be built on the foundation of capitalism and science, and all of their respective inequitable baggage.

Will a cultural revolution of communication and information occur? How likely is this utopian vision of total freedom of access to information to occur? What factors will affect the outcome of a communication revolution?

I believe that there are three important ideologies which will determine whether these new technologies will produce a communication revolution, and what its form would be: the ascendancy of scientific logic; the politics of the power of information; and how capitalism will sell the future to us.

The Ascendancy of Scientific Logic

At least part of the reason for the significance read into technological advances must be the common assumption that because science is ‘logical’ and ‘objective’ it is nearly infallible. A corollary arising from this attitude is that scientific ‘progress’ will lead to the best future possible.

Almost everyone who lives in a modern, technological society is tightly strapped to the trajectory of a “techno-logic”, which projects a historical course for society plotted along points marking marginal improvements in the features of our technological artefacts, especially computers.5

But is the world view of “Western purposive science”6 really objective? Not all endeavours that have pretended to be ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ have been. The history of the development of modern science does not always correspond to a search for “verifiable truth”, but also “to the desire to construct a custom-made referent, capable of justifying the way our present society lives and thinks the world, and wrapped with the argument of its authority”7. The scorn with which the scientific community traditionally considers other less ‘logical’ disciplines, seems to me to support the idea that “Western purposive science” has its own, biased, agenda.

The envisioned communication revolution, would then, be based on a technology arising from a specific ideology which confirms one world view, and quietly denies others as ‘irrational’ or ‘subjective’. Thus communications technology, as designed by the scientifically trained, is potentially a non-neutral carrier. If the technology is based on historical development dominated by a certain bias, can the application of that technology supersede the bias to become the utopian ideal of freedom of communication for everyone? And if not, who will have the most to gain through this vision of the ‘best possible future’? One obvious answer is that the inventors of the technology would benefit – they would be lauded, needed and well recompensed in such a future.

Gary Chapman points out “there is rarely a moment of reflection about the intentions that led to this [scientific] ‘progress,’ or the dependencies and disempowerment that it creates”8.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that scientific practices have succeeded in bringing the highest standard of living to the largest number of people in recorded history. This could be called a type of freedom – freedom from famine, and plague. But a freedom based on averages rather than individuals. It is just as true that science has been used to create some of the worst atrocities of human society – nuclear weapons, and industries that are slowly killing our planet with pollution.

I don’t think a future based on science is necessarily hopelessly restrictive and bleak. I do think that the way scientific principles are applied to these new communication technologies will be crucial to the formation of our future freedoms. It is most important to ask ourselves ‘which type of future will these new technologies bring: freedom or atrocity?’. The responsibility for the ultimate answer rests with all of us.

The Politics of the Power of Information

If we are indeed at the beginning of the Information Age, then information, and the ability to communicate it, is power. There are two schools of thought about who will have access to this power through new communication technologies. One sees the potential freedom of distribution that the new multi-media offer as “rhizomorphic in all its characteristics”9, and hence intrinsically free of many of the old methods of oppression and suppression practiced by those who control the power of information in the non-virtual world. However, the other school of thought is more wary.

A major social and political danger is the formation of a strongly bimodal social structure, with the masses of women and men of all ethnic groups, but especially people of colour, confined to a homework economy, illiteracy of several varieties, and general redundancy and impotence, controlled by hi-tech repressive apparatuses ranging from entertainment to surveillance and disappearance.10

That two such radical views can exist side-by-side is a reflection on the fact that no one yet knows quite how the amalgamated technology of tomorrow will work: what it will cost, who will have access, what information will be provided, what language it will be provided in, who will provide the information, who will verify the information, how we will find what we are looking for amongst the mass of data, and who will adjudicate in the virtual world. Until these questions can be answered, the contradictory views about the nature of the impending revolution will remain.

In my opinion the politics of information is going to be a key cause of contradiction in the new virtual society. I am not alone in this opinion. The main theme of much ‘Cyberpunk’ writing is an exploration of these types of issues: who will own the hardware, the software, and the information stored in it, in this brave new world? But what many of the important issues will end up being is still a mystery. In fact, it could be said that “what is so far incomplete in our own age is a clear view of the significant contradictions of the information society.”11

What are the contradictions I foresee? Those between the interests of the established information brokers – such as publishers, businesses, teacher, researchers, writers, and governments – and how they choose to disseminate information in the new ‘freeing’ multi-media environment12. If the people who currently own information (read power) restrict it, what will be the consequences for the utopian vision of freedom? Will it mean that current political power relations are reproduced through the new communications technology? If so, is there any room for a revolution? Or will the new multi-media society have a more superficial effect than that envisioned by theorists?

Another possible contradiction is similar to that which was experienced with industrialisation, a disjuncture “between the Panglossian pronouncements of people well rewarded or inspired by the computer revolution and the actual adjustment of society to the impact of this technology”13. Who, then, is ‘adjusting’ to this revolution most quickly?

In a 1996 survey of the internet it was found that there were 39 million users who could send and receive email, 17 million of which could provide information via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) or the World Wide Web14. At present the world population is about 5.5 billion15, which means that a growing, but still relatively small, proportion of people have access to the new communication technologies. Sixty percent of those that do have access to the internet are connected via commercial domains16, and the predominant language used online is English. It is also a predominantly male society (63% of users are male), although this is changing17. These facts and figures, more than anything else, show that this technology is still very much an arena for a select, if large, group.

Perhaps the most important of these factors is that the majority of access providers are commercial. This fact, combined with the predominance of the English language and male users, must have consequences with regards to how the system is designed and used, and with regards to the assumptions that underpin trying to target information to an audience.

The positive side of considering the current status of the control of information becomes apparent when we look at stand-alone computers. The number of people who have access to them is almost incalculable, as it includes not only those who own machines, but the proliferation of these types of systems in offices, public libraries, schools and colleges. Even without access to the internet, an ever growing number of people have access to stand-alone multi-media (such as CD-Roms), and desktop publishing. Publishing has for so many centuries been the domain of a select few, that this new mass freedom to produce written texts could be seen as a positive step towards the utopian ideal of individual freedom in the Information Age. However, there is no room for complacency here. There are questions we must ask ourselves, as responsible citizens of the current society, and our future society.

Who is trying to sell this revolutionary future to us, and how? “Technology always empowers someone. It empowers those who possess it, those who make use of it, and those who have access to it.”18 At present, it seems that those who possess the new communications technologies are the people who have generally had power in modern Western societies – English speaking, male capitalists. Who will have access to this new technology in the future?

Capitalism and the Packaging of the Future

We trust large media organs to conduct proper research and crosschecking, and we assume no reason to lie. Yet the picture inevitably blurs as media organisations run football competitions and vertically integrate their products from content production right through to end-user service delivery. The media stops being the middle and becomes the entire product.19

The industrial monopoly of print has been all but broken with the increasing accessibility of communication technologies such as desktop publishing and laser printing, as well as online publishing. The response, particularly in the last three years, has been for commercial information providers to begin the move into multi-media, both as suppliers of information, and as suppliers of the media itself. More and more the internet is living up to its name as the ‘information superhighway’, as electronic billboards pop up along every popular virtual venue. The novelty of the media is recognised as being exploitable; the potential for huge audiences with low overheads is being recognised; and the media itself is becoming more and more legitimate, instead of just a place for computer nerds to congregate. “Indeed, the supposed infallibility of machines is not unlike the written word of the past, as a testimony beyond any discussion”20.

But commercial information brokers are not disinterested suppliers – their purpose is to make money. So what is this virtual future going to cost us?

First, the equipment – the physical access to the media – will cost. And if current prices are any indication of this cost, it is going to be prohibitively high for a large number of people.

Second, a parallel can perhaps be drawn to the effects of the print revolution. As information brokers are interested in making a profit, they will seek out, and make available “first and foremost those works which [are] of interest to the largest possible number”21. This would hardly be conducive to total freedom of information.

Third, with so much competing information, demanding attention in a much more aggressive way than single media advertising, it will be harder and harder to discriminate between the information on offer.

Fourth, it is likely that “time famine”22 will increase, due, paradoxically, to the ever-quickening ability to access information. There will never be enough time to choose everything of interest.

These are merely what I envision as the most likely costs of the new communication technologies, I am sure they will not be the only ones. These issues do, however, make me wonder just how different this virtual world will be. It will be faster, and there will be more information, but this is true of the last 100 years of history as well.

However, the costs outlined above ignore the fact that the limits of these new media are not even close to being reached yet. Equipment prices are likely to drop as they become more common-place. The most popular topics might very will be catered for most, but with such a large audience almost any niche market has the capacity to attract a supplier. With so much competing information to search through it is likely that more sophisticated searching mechanisms will be built. Perhaps, if the freeing potential of these technologies is realised, these prices would be worth paying.

I don’t think it is any accident that postmodernism, post-Fordist capitalism, and multi-media are all popular ideas at present. In a world where new markets are always ‘good’, and the virtual market has the potential to reach both large audiences and small niches, the intermix of these ideologies seems more than fortuitous. In fact, it leads me to suspect that the ‘information revolution’ is not really driven by the new communication technologies at all, but by economic and political forces that recognise the technology as a useful tool. However, it is “often difficult to decipher whether the development process drives market acceptance, or whether demand from the mass market promotes the availability of technology”23.

In any case, for the individual taking this ride into the technological future, the drive behind the developments may not seem as important as their uses, or their consequences.

Will changing communication technologies affect our culture marginally or revolutionise it? To some degree it has already changed it irrevocably. However, I believe the changes will ultimately be far more profound.

There are structural features of multi-media – and specifically hypertext – which have the potential to revolutionise the way we communicate, as a culture and as individuals. But this revolution will not happen in a vacuum. The scientific, political, and economic ideologies of the real world are all contributing to the form of virtual communications – the virtual world is a product of the ‘real’ one. The real issue for each of us as potential citizens of this new Information Age is in how this new world will be configured. Will there be room for a revolution in individual freedom if the structures of the ‘real’ world are largely reproduced within the virtual world?

If the various power structures currently existing are transferred to the virtual world en masse, the changes to our methods of communication and our culture will still happen, but it will only be a partial change. An evolution rather than a revolution. The iniquities that have always plagued humanity will remain with us in our new incarnation.

However, if each of us thinks of these issues as we forge into the future – if we stake an active claim on this new era – we could achieve a true transcendence from the physical limits that have hindered our search for freedom in the past. We could usher in an age of freedom, a freedom imaginable yet indefinable. With this new communication technology we have a unique opportunity to leave a lasting legacy to our children. Whether it will be bleak or enlightened rests with each individual who helps to build it.

I have used the internet since the late 1980’s, and it is only in the last three years that it has really changed much. Before the change I used to dream the Cybernaut dream of floating through multi-dimensional code, pulling information towards me, and putting it up where I wanted it to be. Since the change, I keep bumping into the virtual equivalent of empty coke cans and used condoms – the real world has intruded. And slowly, but surely, my dream of the great equalising revolution that these new technologies could bring is being extinguished.

Yet still the dream survives in me. The opportunity these technologies offer us has not yet passed. We still have time to grasp this future. If we care.


1994 Britannica Book of the Year.
Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994.

Anderson, Benedict.

Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Balsamo, Anne.

“Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 92, 4 (Fall 1993), 681-712.

Burnett, Kathleen.

“Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader. Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996.

Chapman, Gary.

“Taming the Computer,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 92, 4 (Fall 1993), 827-849.

Dancer, Helen & Tebbutt, Dan.

“Here We Are Now Entertain Us,” Australian Personal Computer 17, 4 (April 1996), 87-94.

Haraway, Donna.

“A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader. Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996.

Landow, George.

Hypertext: Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Lewis, Peter. .

Email report of findings of a recent internet survey, sent to the University Computer Club (UWA) mailing list on 26 April 1996.

Talens, Jenaro.

“Writing Against the Simulacrum: The Place of Literature and Literary Theory in the Electronic Age,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader. Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996.

Tebbutt, Dan.

“Networked Unreality,” Australian Personal Computer 17, 4 (April 1996), 64.

Trend, David.

“What’s in a name? National Identity and Media Literacy,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader. Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996.

End Notes

    Anne Balsamo, “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (4) (Fall 1993), p. 689. Quoting from Pat Cadigan’s Synners.

    Kathleen Burnett, “Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996), p. 374 (paragraph 11).

    Burnett, p. 371 (paragraph 1).

    David Trend, “What’s in a name? National Identity and Media Literacy,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996), p.349.

    Gary Chapman, “Taming the Computer,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (4) (Fall 1993), p. 832.

    Chapman, p. 841.

    Jenaro Talens, “Writing Against the Simulacrum: The Place of Literature and Literary Theory in the Electronic Age,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996), p. 411. Talen’s is discussing the formation of literary cannon, rather than the historical formation of science as a discipline, but I believe the point is valid nontheless.

    Chapman, p. 835.

    Burnett, p. 381.

    Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” In Theory: Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, Western Australia: English Department, University of Western Australia, 1996), p. 393.

    Chapman, p. 843.

    Talens, p. 405.

    Chapman, p.844.

    Peter Lewis . Email report of findings of a recent internet survey, sent to the University Computer Club (UWA) mailing list on 26 April 1996.

    1994 Britannica Book of the Year. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994), p. 756. World Population for 1993.



    George Landow. Hypertext: Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 169.

    Dan Tebbutt, “Networked Unreality,” Australian Personal Computer 17 (4), (April 1996), p. 64.

    Talens, p. 406.

    Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983), p. 42.

    Chapman, p. 839.

    Helen Dancer & Dan Tebbutt, “Here We Are Now Entertain Us,” Australian Personal Computer 17 (4), (April 1996), p. 90.

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