Guest Blog by a Professor of Psychology

There is a lot of hype written about new technologies and new media of communication. These include the internet, the part of the internet called the web, and the new forms of communication and commerce that have taken up what the new technologies offer. Some predict a brave new world, while others, often making more or less the same assumptions, warn of dire consequences – just as people did when television was invented, and aeroplanes, and steam locomotives. So, what is it about these new (and they are still very new!) forms of interaction and representation, that creates all the fuss?

One useful perspective comes from a combination of psychology and history.  It has been argued by ‘cultural psychologists’ that the ways people think and understand the world, in any culture or historical time, are basically shaped by the means of communication that are used. This includes language itself, but also pictures, tools, artefacts, writing systems (literacy), and the inventions of print, mass media, and now the internet.

The idea is that these are not merely new ways of communicating the same old messages. Rather, new media, new forms of representation and communication, create new forms of thinking, knowing and acting – often going way beyond what anybody could have predicted at the time. The invention of literacy (the ability to read and write), for example, is widely credited with making science possible, and the kinds of analytic, logical reasoning that go with it, and education, and democracy – indeed, the modern world. Psychologist David Olson suggests that “what we call intelligence in our culture is little more than a mastery of the forms of literate uses of language.” The argument extends to include other invented forms of representation – pictures, diagrams, mathematics.

So, the way we think and understand isn’t just something going on privately inside our heads. It is the use of symbols, forms of communication, whose origins are in the public domain. These kinds of ideas have had a profound effect on the practices of education over the last couple of decades. Kids, who used to be silenced for ‘talking in class,’ and required to operate as a collection of individual minds, are to be found talking, communicating, sharing actions and ideas. Classrooms are much noisier places than they used to be. The emphasis is shifting from what individuals know, towards how understandings are shared and communicated – a more ‘social’ and communicative concept of intelligence.

One way to understand how new media produce new forms of thinking, is in terms of ‘affordances’. Different media of communication have different affordances – that is, they possess features that make possible, and provide for, different kinds of action, social interaction, and thinking. Take literacy, for example. Writing isn’t just like talking, except that it’s written instead of spoken. We don‘t write like we talk – except maybe when doing a formal lecture, but that’s parasitical on the written word (in fact the word “lecture” is derived from the Latin for reading). The sheer fact of writing something down makes it available for storing, record keeping, formulating definitive version of things (originally, stuff such as land ownership, contracts, and the word of God).

Once something is written down, it becomes available for repeated scrutiny and comparison. And that generates an interest in truth and precision, in the relationships between one statement and another (logic), in contrast to speech which is produced on and for its moment. Literacy makes education possible. It makes displacement possible – we can read what Plato and Einstein wrote, long after they are gone. This, of course, was happening a couple of thousand years before the invention of film and audio-tape, which have affordances of their own, and create still further possibilities.

Internet communications, websites and blogging can also be understood as providing new affordances for communication and how we relate to each other. These are just the latest in a long line of new technologies and media of communication, that have given rise to new possibilities of communication and understanding. About two and a half millennia ago, in the ancient world, the increased access of significant numbers of people (not just priests and scribes) to systems of writing gave rise to new kinds of philosophy and science. When print was invented, the painstaking copying of manuscripts (monks hand-copying the Latin and Greek bible) became a mass production of the written word.

With widespread literacy and print came new practices of education, democracy, an explosion of information, whose sheer availability was itself important. Exploiting those possibilities came political pamphlets, newspapers, the widespread availability of critique and opinion, along with commercial uses; the same copied message could reach thousands of people. Think of the differences between theatre and cinema – and how the affordances of each medium creates something new, and massively influential, beyond the dreams of the technology’s inventors. They take on a life of their own, as their new affordances are developed and exploited. And of course, the new uses to which they are put create new demands for technological invention.

Then came radio’s ability to reach millions with the spoken word, so we were back to the emotional immediacy of  voices and music, but now with a reach to outstrip even the printed word. Again, there were new implications for government and politics, and for commercial life. Hitler knew and exploited the power of film and radio for propaganda and conformity. At first, ideas were sold like soap powder – the product that washes whiter. But things soon became more subtle. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, was a great admirer of Hollywood.

Forget the crude images favoured by Adolf for promiting anti-Semitism – Goebbels appreciated the power of Hollywood not only to sell adventure and romance, but along with them, the American way of life, the values and aspirations that motivated political and commercial life, the pursuit of achievement and self-improvement via the marketplace. And it could all be done by the back door, the background understandings needed in order to follow how the West was won, how Harry met Sally, or how Harry met Voldemort. Those are images and interests on which to hang anything from politics and morality, to the desires that a marketplace can provide for.

These days, of course, the marketplace has a new, immensely powerful medium in which to work, with new affordances still being defined and developed – the internet.  The effects are not easy to predict; there will be developments that can now only be glimpsed, new uses and consequences of electronic communication that, like the political consequences of the printing press, were not imagined at the time of its invention.

But much of it will be, and already is, grounded in the unique combinations of features that the medium ‘affords’.  The ability to almost instantly send or post text and pictures, to a virtually unlimited number of recipients (like radio, at almost no extra cost compared, say to a mail shot), but quickly and informally like on the telephone, yet arriving in mailboxes or available online even when the target reader/viewer isn’t there to receive it, just like letters in the mail, and unlike talk on the phone or radio, but massively faster and more extended in reach.

As we’ve seen already with mobile texting, there develop different kinds of language and social interaction, different opportunities, different ways and bases and organizations of time, for knowing and relating to people. So the affordances of the new media start to shape the messages that they carry,  and the social and commercial functions of those messages, while the requirements of messaging feed back into the design of new technologies.

Generally, new media share some features with older media, but introduce new elements. Web sites are a bit like billboards, except that billboards stay put and don’t come to you, in your home and office. And each one has to be separately put up and paid for. Both these media may have nuisance value and be easy to ignore, but again, it is the deeply different affordances that make the huge differences in functionality. With web information it is so easy to stop and take an interest, the content is easy to update and alter, it is immediate, interactive, available on demand, and leads on, at the user’s whim and convenience, to wherever the links may take them.

I’ve hardly mentioned television yet – that massive shaper of the cultural and commercial life of the last century.  Television’s impact on what people came to experience, know, and buy, can hardly be overestimated. And again, like the internet, it has had it champions and critics. But very few of us have managed, in the modern world, to live without it.

For the content providers, TV provides a way of reaching millions of people, although rather indiscriminately, and with the same fixed message. For commercial providers, paying for air time, that message must be short and sweet. It hugely expands the affordances of radio, but is similarly mostly non-interactive, passively consumed (or ignored, or unseen), contains dubious and hugely limited information content (I am referring to commercial advertising here), is very expensive, and is no match for the ‘further exploration’ affordances that web links provide to their users. With e-commerce, there is no big premium, and no standardization or restriction, on time spent by users, nor on the sheer bulk of available content. Those who discover that content can browse, explore, and do business there and then. So it matters, that web content is made readily available and attractive.

One other useful concept, this time from social sciences, is what sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘footing’. Communication often isn’t just a message sent from person A to person B. Even in everyday talk there are various ‘communication roles’ that may be combined or sub-divided, and these roles are reflected in the division of labour by which commercial messages reach their targets. Normally, in conversation, a speaker is the author, constructor, and deliverer of what they are saying. But sometimes a message from ‘A’ to ‘B’ may be delivered by ‘C’, and even formulated by someone else, ‘D’. Goffman called these roles the Principal (corresponding to A), the Author (C), and the Animator (D). Usually, these are the same person; we are mostly the constructor and deliverer of our own messages. But it is a very exploitable device, to separate them, as when governments or individuals use agents, agencies, and spokespersons of various kinds – whether in relaying gossip as hearsay (‘It’s not me saying this – I’m just the messenger’), or conducting a political interview (Paxman will quote other people rather than claim views as his own), or employing commercial staff, or a solicitor, or publicity agent.

The internet provides its own categories and resources for ‘footing’, as we learn to use and develop its special technical ‘affordances’. We see these in specialized services such as web designers, advertising copy writers, and a range of agencies who can expertly Author and Animate the Principal’s message. If you want to reach people via the web, it will probably pay you to pay an expert to do it for you. It’s no use having something to say, or something to offer, if you are not reaching the right people, or enough people, or not framing it to best advantage, nor making it attractive in its own right, like Hollywood.

Visit Derek Edwards at