Reading Comprehension 037


One of the basic questions that one asks about all the computing power that we have in the world today is the question of responsibility: the responsibility that governments, organizations and individuals have to exploit the power. To have control, as
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) allows us, is to have responsibility about what we do with control; how we use it.
In this new era of information/ knowledge economies, a key question is the power of accessibility that the computers have given us now. Easy access to information and knowledge bases have destroyed the earlier era of "monopolies of knowledge". Harold Adams Innis, a Canadian economist and pioneer in media theory, coined the phrase 'monopolies of knowledge' to describe the way those in possession of scarce information technology hoard and wield the advantage that it provides. One has seen this happen and is still happening between countries, between companies and between people. However, with the advent of the 'new' ICT revolution, the inequalities at least within companies are going.

The first set of information technologies that existed just about ensured the survival of the different species, more so the humans, because the ICT that we developed were more advanced. Gesturing, drawing and the first speech were definitely a key to survival when the predators were physically much better equipped than humans.

The key to actual civilization, though, was the construction of language, for speech and later, for writing. Speech was something that died just after it was heard... rather, the words ceased to exist but the idea remained. When the first writing was introduced, there could be some kind of recording... the words and the ideas could exist for a long time to come, depending on the media of course. This leads us to two important variables in the ICT development - space and time.

Space, as a variable in ICT, stands for distances. Time, in ICT, stands for immediacy and alternatively, for history. In this context, speech could get over the time barrier but not the space barrier. Written communication, on the other hand, was a technology that could get over the space barrier (someone could carry a written message to the target and could be stored) but could not get over the immediacy barrier.

One of the main developments in ICT that led to what ICT is today is the written alphabet. This can be illustrated with a simple example: The Chinese invented the printing press long before Gutenberg did; however, it really did not catch on because they did not have an alphabet but only pictorial representation. The written alphabet, in the case of the printing press, is an essential precondition for the success of the new information and communication technology.

A great leap in ICT history was photography. The difference between photography and painting was the subjectivity of the painter that went into the creation of the work of art. At that time, a famous French painter exclaimed that painting was dead. Not so. Some people needed the painter's subjectivity in the result. For example, a wealthy patron might insist that the painter make him look younger or the flowers in the painting brighter.

The lesson from photography and painting and later television and radio, as Paul Levinson writes in his book "The Soft Edge" is: "When a new medium triumphs over an older medium in a given function, that does not mean that the older medium will shrivel up and die. Rather, the old medium may be pushed into a niche in which it can perform better than the new medium and where it will therefore survive, albeit as something different from what it was before the new medium arrived. The key is whether the old medium is able to hit upon an already extinct human need or perceptual mode." Other examples of media that coexist today are radio and television.

In a management context, we could draw a lesson from the new media-old media wrangle. Middle managers in the old structures were essentially a medium of communication, albeit human, with all the attending flaws and more importantly with all the attending gifts. The new medium that has taken the place of middle managers in communication is electronic, with much greater speed and objectivity and accuracy. The problem now is that most organizations still haven't given due weightage to the potential of the 'human' part of the old media and as such the old media has not even been given an opportunity to find a niche for itself.

Another interesting story in the evolution of ICT is that of the telegraph. In 1851, the first underwater cable between Calais (in France) and Dover (in England) commenced operation and Reuter set up offices in London. At that time, the British Press refused to publish news gathered or sent, by telegraph. Reuter's operation was limited to private messages only. It was only in 1858 that The Times agreed to publish a report received by Reuter through the telegraph. (It was a report of a major speech by Napoleon III). The speed of the first publication of a message by the telegraph was seven years and a few hours - a few minutes to transmit and decode, a few hours to print and seven years from when the new technology was available.

This traditional distrust of new media has always existed but since the advent of electronic computers, the status of new media has changed - the discovery of new ICTs is actively pursued by using the existing media and each new technology is given its due. However, it needs to be said that most developments in ICT since the introduction of digital technologies have only been complementary technologies. Distrust of new media has traditionally had its roots in the fear that the new technology would seriously undermine the older way of life, a way of life that may not have been the best but certainly known and comfortable. Traditional opponents of new media have generally been people who did not want a further democratization of the 'monopolies of knowledge' that they possessed. They were and are well aware that new ICT have always opened out information to more people.

One more point about the resistance to new media is that critics of new media usually have a point that some aspects or consequences in the usage of the older media that are desirable are impaired or lost because of the adoption of new media. Take for instance, Socrates' critique of writing as jeopardizing memory. Yes, atrophy of memory did come about as a result of writing but he refused to see beyond it into the aspects of record and storage, which was important for the day-to-day life, if not for intellectual process.

The lesson from ICT history is this: Opponents of new media usually have very little experience of that media. As Kant said, reason alone has its limitations. Without actual experience, it can become ideology and this, in the case of media critics, is a big mistake as information is their lifeblood. By 1881, the telegraph had proven itself in the US. William Orton, President of Western Union Telegraph was asked a little advice. Chauncey Depew was offered one sixth of all Bell Telephone stock for USD 10,000. At that point of time, the telephone was five years old. Orton advised Depew not to buy the stock - he thought that the telephone would never be more than a scientific toy.

Paul Levinson says that "every process in life and technology, including communication, has its preconditions." Most preconditions are soft, meaning that they make the process possible, rather than dictate its existence. Similarly, managerial openness and willingness to trust are preconditions for the successful adoption of a new technology within an organization.

In the final analysis, a history of ICT shows that a technology becomes successful not only because it is good or more effective but also because it satisfied a fundamental human need for that aspect that new technology could offer. The need here is important. Unfortunately, today, people and companies tend to go for technology that actually does not satisfy a particular need and then complain about it. But by the time they complain, they are already hooked to the next level of technology that they still don't know much about.

Ironically, in spite of the sudden rush of new technologies in recent years, the fact is that some of the fundamental changes in ICT as we know it today, came about in the early part of this century. There has been no fundamental change in ICT since the telephone, radio and television. All other new technologies are extensions of these or complementary to these ICTs.



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