Not What You Say, But How You Say It

By Jon Jeckell

Communication isn’t just about the message; the medium in which a message is conveyed also has profound effects.  Marshall McLuhan claimed in “The Medium is the Message” that the different media used for communication across the centuries had a profound impact on how humans thought and acted.  For millennia, our ancestors shared conversations around community fires or gathered in public squares to talk.  Shared experience was important because there was no public record other than the memories of the people present to verify what actually happened and what was said.  Elders were considered ‘wise’ because they could recall events that nobody else had witnessed and the only way to preserve important knowledge was through oral tradition.  Children were given rare sweets and feasts were held to ensure important events were particularly memorable.  Staying on good terms with your community was crucial because you relied upon their support in any dispute within the community.  Spoken language put the brakes on how big an empire could expand because things had to be translated to every language along the way or you had to impose your language upon every group with a strong self-identity along the way.  Even conquerors must choose their battles carefully, and forcing everyone to speak your language imposes a high cost and resistance.

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The written language changed all of that, and the emergence of the printing press propelled colloquial languages by making standardized written documents accessible to a much broader range of people.  Now people could learn to read and write their own local language (for most of them that started with the local translation of the Bible) rather than learning Latin.  This gradually standardized languages because setting up a printing press for publication was still relatively expensive (particularly if you needed to make entirely different alphabets), but was cheap to use after that.  Mass producing written documents was vastly easier than writing a single custom document by hand.  This standardizing effect arguably led to the emergence of national languages, stamping out of local dialects and language enclaves, and the rise of national identities centered on common language and other cultural traits.  Memory became less important and relevant as laws and knowledge became increasingly codified across generations through the written word.  In many places, this helped foster the development of the rule of law.  Arbitrary or subjective decisions by rulers or the community fell aside to more objective and predefined rules.  It also provided a common experience largely driven by a few who could master writing and get the resources to produce and distribute their works.  The ability of leaders or influential figures to promulgate their message to a much larger audience helped empires expand and oriented communities into a higher level of organization.

Radio and television took this shared experience to another level by standardizing speech, particularly dialect.  Regional accents and dialects diminished greatly during the radio and television era.  People around the world could hear radio broadcasts dominated by a few languages, predominantly The Queen’s English via BBC, and the Midwest dialect on American radio, movies, and television.  Millions of people in remote areas of the world have learned how to speak English from watching American soap operas or other programs in their area.  Academics worried about the extinction of even more languages as the world seemed to be converging on English.  The broadcast mechanism of radio and television also led to convergence on many other levels as well.  People who listened to the same popular radio and television shows shared a common experience that allowed people from distant points to have something in common and provided a reference point.  

But the explosion of options available on cable and satellite television has reversed this to an extent.  Although most of these choices still have a common linguistic component, few television shows enjoy the relative popularity that made them as pervasive as shows in the past.  Moreover, satellite television has allowed immigrants to retain ties to their homeland, to include the language, culture, and ideology, which may reduce their willingness or ability to join their new society.  Generations of past immigrants had little hope of communicating with the family they left behind in the Old Country, except by mail.  Their children had little contact with the Old World except through the traditions and artifacts brought by their families, and kept alive in enclaves of people from the same places.  

The Internet was expected to lead to even more convergence, since it could reach nearly everyone in the world and make communication even easier.  It was believed it would kill off all other languages and make English universal worldwide, along with a platform for dialogue that would lead to worldwide understanding.  It didn’t quite work out that way largely because it gave small pockets of people sharing common interests dispersed around the globe to communicate and collaborate.  While print media, radio, and television provides a megaphone for a few to broadcast to many, the internet allows everyone to communicate to many.  Low cost internet distribution largely broke the stranglehold of a few large studios and a few selected hit songs dominating the music industry.  People in the Midwest US can connect with other people who love Anime and watch the latest shows quickly after they are released in Japan.  Groups that were tiny minorities embedded in large communities could unite into a larger virtual community.  Larger communities not only provide moral support, but increases the efficiency and feasibility of having a common culture.  For example, learning Cornish yourself would be extremely hard without anyone to talk to, but it becomes easier if you reach a threshold number of people you can communicate with.  A telephone is useless by itself, but becomes exponentially more useful the more other phones you can call with it.  Similarly, the more people who share ideas the more those ideas can grow and become more sophisticated and useful, at least to the group developing them.  This phenomenon allowed sub-cultures to emerge and thrive across the globe, and not all of these sub-cultures have been harmless.  New self-identities can emerge spontaneously, particularly as people want to differentiate themselves in homogenous societies (think of all the James Dean movies in the 1950s or the teen movies in the 1980s). Some fragmentation in society helps a culture innovate, become more inclusive, assimilate new ideas and adapt, but they can also result in turbulent times when competing fragments collide.  

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Movies seem to have resisted this phenomenon—so far.  The Economist recently commented on how movie choices are being squeezed out by the blockbuster phenomenon.  With Netflix and other high quality television options squeezing movie ticket sales, movie theaters have survived by providing an experience difficult to replicate at home.  This has led to most movies being dominated by a few giant blockbuster films carefully released at strategic points throughout the year to maximize their returns.  These blockbusters may be the last remaining bastions of our common experience, a common touchstone familiar to broad cross sections of society.

What happens if even this common reference point vanishes?  This is a question I asked myself after attending some of the presentations at SIGGRAPH in 2017.  This event featured startling advances in computer-generated imagery, with highly realistic human interactions being created interactively in real time.  CGI characters in movies have become increasingly realistic, while also being rendered much more quickly.  Rendering farms took weeks to generate scenes from Shrek and Toy Story, while the avatar of Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One took far less time. The video game exhibits showed incredibly realistic rendering of clouds, water, and other complex scenery in real time. They also showed remarkable advances in easily building realistic characters and objects and controlling their motion on screen, as well as cinematic camera angles and effects.  

I also heard that there is a growing trend in video games orienting around story and immersive environments over traditional video game action, or canned scenarios.  One exhibit in particular left me wondering if immersive story driven video games and their ability to dynamically adapt to user inputs would lead to true personalized stories revolving around the interaction and preferences of individual users.  Video game engines (such as Unreal and Unity) could provide a much richer dynamically interactive experience than Choose-Your-Own Adventure books could provide.  Those books provided only a limited number of branching options to change the story experience, while video games could provide a virtually unlimited range of options.  They could also do it seamlessly and transparently, unlike clunky DVD interfaces that provided different camera angles or alternate endings.  Some video game systems can be even more powerful, rendering higher resolution video and higher quality audio than typically than home theater systems and video games can take advantage of advances in audio and video display technologies faster than mass-market video releases can.  This is particularly true of PC based gaming rigs, which are also predominantly used for single player games.  But smartphone games are also predominantly single player and their auditory and visual rendering is also accelerating rapidly, making their potential ripe for this phenomenon as well.  If the movie blockbuster is the apotheosis of centralization through mass production and economy of scale, then video games could be the vehicle to mass customization that disrupts it.

So if many norms of behavior were once driven by the need to get along with your community, and later promulgated over large groups by mass media, what will happen if the need to differentiate oneself begins to unwind social bonds, even if just a little?  There are definitely a lot of benefits to this, but there could also be some pitfalls and strife along the way.  And just as we are coming to terms with the potential for social media and the internet to fuel this, could we now see super-personalized fantasies lead to increased isolation and indifference to each other?  If one can immerse themselves in their own little word that runs according to their own rules and preferences without any social consequences or norms, what does that portend for the ability of some of these people to get along with others?  What are some of the other potential impacts from cinematic quality personalized stories or the possible further loss of common experience?

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