I tend to subscribe to a theory of history which I will call soft technological determinism. It sees technology as the primary driving force of history. In this model, technology is upstream of economics which is upstream of culture which is upstream of politics.
At one level, this is kind of a silly thing to say. It is sort of a version of the question “Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?”
The obvious (and true) answer is yes. Art imitates life and life imitates art. There is a complex dynamic relationship and not a linear one in both cases. The “soft” part is an acknowledgement of this complex, non-linear dynamic – culture and politics obviously impact the course of technological development.
Even though technology, economics, politics and culture all interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways, having some sense for which one is maybe doing more of the driving can be useful in better looking into the future.
The history of television provides a great example. Owing to technological development, commercial television became available in the U.S. right around the end of WWII with the major networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) all starting in 1946-1948.
Over a period of 15 years, it went from something brand new to the centerpiece of American culture. By the early 1960s, the average American was watching 5-6 hours of television per day.
The major networks were initially something of a public utility. The state of television at that time was that there were few options so the networks didn’t really have to compete that much for viewership. If you watched coverage of the Apollo moon missions on NBC vs CBS, there wasn’t too much of a difference in how they were portrayed.
In a sense, this was probably harmonizing. All Americans had a relatively similar view of the moon landings and what they meant for America.
On the other hand, it was also probably repressive. There was very little variety in early television with individual shows like I Love Lucy dominating for many years.
That changed with the advent of cable television. As cable penetration increased, numerous cable-only TV stations were launched. Many had their own news bureaus that could provide more immediate and more localized content.
By the late 1980s, cable-only signals outnumbered broadcast signals on cable systems.
Notably, the first major news network on Cable was Ted Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN).
The advent of Cable meant consumers had far more choice and so news networks began to take on a stronger point of view. MSNBC sprung up to represent the left and Fox News sprung up to represent the right.
As a result, watching the coverage of COVID on each network was very unlike watching the moon landings. Each network had a strong political slant to their coverage. This was a necessity to remain competitive that emerged with the broader consumer choice inherent in cable news.
The advent of streaming further fragmented the media landscape which exacerbated the types of coverage with networks like Breitbart emerging that moved even further out the political spectrum as a way to differentiate.
This shift has been much bemoaned, but it is worth acknowledging that it is only one side of the coin.
This same fragmentation and new business model it created allowed for a much greater diversity of shows and characters. Though this started to shift with cable, the move to streaming was really where it kicked in. The Sopranos was the first major streaming/subscription-based show. How was the Sopranos different from I Love Lucy?
The Sopranos has a male protagonist. However, unlike a show like I Love Lucy, the majority of the more interesting and complex characters in the Sopranos are all women.
As streaming developed, you started to get women anti-heroes with shows like Homeland and The Americans as well, which was previously unheard of.
The overall level of complexity in terms of characterization and plotting that is available today has never been more robust with characters coming much closer to the complexity of real humans. It used to be that the characters were simplistic and merely responding to their environment, not acting on it.
Contrast a show like The Sopranos based on a streaming business model with a show like I Love Lucy.
In The Sopranos, you’ve got characters who are developing over time. They’re much deeper and more complex. This was driven largely by the changing business model of television from advertising-based to subscription-based.
HBO was willing and able to take huge risks in trying to create quality programming because they needed to create shows where people were invested and wanted to keep their HBO subscriptions active.
Prior to streaming, all the profits in television were in syndication. Networks wanted to produce shows where each episode would work as a stand-alone. That way if you showed episode 32 then episode 59, it didn’t matter. Each episode was a stand-alone that could be easily syndicated out to other stations.
The existence of streaming was mostly a technological innovation made possible by increased internet connectivity and bandwidth. Internet connectivity and bandwidth have gotten good enough in many parts of the world to support online streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, and Disney+.
We are in an age that is simultaneously called “The Golden Age of Television” as well as the “Great Fragmentation.” These are two sides of the same coin. Technological change was a driving force which enabled the complex characters of The Sopranos and Game of Thrones also gave us a more fragmented and hostile media landscape.
Under today’s technological paradigm, streaming enables subscription-based models to replace advertising-based ones. This created different programming which has different cultural and political implications
In the 1950s and 60s, the dominant technology (broadcast television) was best economically monetized by advertising. This need for broad appeal lead to programming which was, by today’s standards, generic and simplistic, albeit less divisive. American culture then was arguably the same: more simplistic albeit less divided.
I use television here as one example, but you can tell a similar story about many different pieces of history. Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization tells the story of the advent of wind-powered sail boats and how they enabled the European Age of Exploration which dramatically altered the composition of our world today.
Soft technological determinism sees technology as the main “determining” force in the direction things are moving.
However, it is soft in the sense that it acknowledge technology is far from the only driving force with complex feedback loops playing out with economics, politics, and culture. As Tim Wu chronicled in his excellent book, The Master Switch, government funding and regulations played a substantial role in how media technology evolved in the 20th century.
If you ascribe to soft technological determinism as a view of history, it implies a few things. First, it requires acknowledging that there is no “going back” to the way things used to be. The media landscape of the 1950s and 1960s will not return and we are stuck with a more fragmented landscape and all that entails, good and bad.
It also means that a lot of economic, cultural and political debates become both less interesting and less relevant.
Ultimately, streaming was going to create a more fragmented landscape and no amount of railing for or against that was going to make a tremendous difference. This is not to say that no difference can be made: Once the microprocessors was invented, the smart phone was inevitable but the iPhone was not – that was a conscious and crafted design choice.
When you adopt this view, you start to look at future trends as emergent from current early-stage technologies. Most interesting to me is what I believe will be a shift away from the relative conformity of The Organization Man of the 20th century is giving way to The Blockchain Person of the 21st century.
As with the advent of cable and streaming, the results are likely to be mixed. The public blockchain utopians and public blockchain doomsayers are equally unrealistic in their assessments of the future.
We are unlikely to get either a Utopia or a Hellscape, but rather something in between that is in some ways very similar to what we have now and in other ways very different.
Public Blockchains are not the only force here: Drones, artificial intelligence, Virtual Reality, Cybersecurity threats, CRISPR/gene-editing technology and Computer/Brain interfaces all seem likely important components of where we are heading.
Where exactly we will end up is and will remain an unsolvable mystery, but a better understanding of the technologies shaping it may help us develop a better intuition for how we can prepare for it as humans, investors, entrepreneurs, and technologists.
Last Updated on November 1, 2021 by Taylor Pearson