One of my favorite books, David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, painstakingly chronicles the rise of mediums and media in the first 75 years of the 20th century. It details the ascent of Time Life, CBS, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post (for young millennials, the latter three were “newspapers,” once printed with ink on newsprint).
This historical perspective prompted consideration of what comes next in the realm of mass communications – what is the next groundbreaking medium of tomorrow? I assert that the Internet is essentially the final medium of our time.
An oversimplification of the continuum of 20th century media is that newspapers begat news magazines and radio begat broadcast television. One common hindrance accompanying each evolution was that marketers initially struggled how to best leverage the new medium to the benefit of their organization or clients. They always were initially reticent to accept the efficacy of each new medium on their target demographic(s). Similarly, the recent past revealed that the Internet and all its ensuing tentacles each faced similar challenges early on.
If only Halberstam were alive today (he tragically died far too soon in a 2007 traffic accident) to use his profound brilliance in long-form reporting to relate the rise of the Internet and contrast it to that of its predecessors – a The Powers That Be 2.0, if you will. It would be fascinating to pick his brain on what he might think the next evolutionary medium will be.
Each medium of the 20th century built and extended upon those prior. Newspapers and periodicals laid the foundation for mass communication. Radio added sound broadcast over the AM/FM airwaves. Television essentially augmented radio with the visual element. The critical thing differentiating the Internet from these past advances of media is that it is a wholesale usurper each of the media that preceded it. It is bringing all prior communication vehicles under its vast tent. Old school “print” newspapers appear to be on the way out. “Print” magazine circulation is on a precipitous decline. Radio streaming via the Internet is the “go to” for millenials, while television as we know it is rapidly morphing towards an on-demand platform with “smart” TV’s that can rely solely on the Internet for content. Every dominant medium of the 20th century is now seemingly beholden to the Internet for its continued relevance.
Will all future advancements in media simply be aggregated as part and parcel of the Internet as the “be all and end all” of mass communication? Is the newest term in business jargon, “the Internet of everything” a truism?
The Internet is already positioned in a manner that no previous medium ever enjoyed, due to its overall ubiquity in all phases of modern life. Portable radios had their heyday. Portable TVs, not so much (remember the Watchman?). Portable Internet is here to stay as it is the linchpin of a plethora of devices. Mobile phones are seemingly less for phone calls than leveraging the mobile web. The long-term viability of smart watches and interactive eyeglasses is TBD, but they both have been initially co-opted as Internet-driven devices. No previous communications medium developed in this manner.
As a medium, the Internet has been revolutionary (as opposed to simply evolutionary) as it has rapidly and seamlessly embedded itself within the fabric of everyday life. Because of this, I believe that any future advancement in media will be inextricably linked to the Internet, the preeminent medium of today and the future.