A 10-minute trip through 400 years of the past and future of media

The below is an edited version of the talk given this spring by Knight Foundation's Senior Adviser to the President Eric Newton on the past, present and future of media.  Newton covered 400 years of media in 10 minutes at the Imagine 2013 Conference in Naples, Florida, before moderating a panel with Larry Kramer, USA Today president and publisher, and Ellen Levy, most recently vice president of corporate development and strategy from Linked In. Video of the event is here

By Eric Newton

Who has a smart phone? Don’t worry, I don’t want to borrow it.

Now, who had the exact same phone in 1990?  No one.

What happened between 1990 and today?  The Digital Age happened: An entirely new age of human communication delivered by a real-time interactive global network, the Internet.

It’s a time of new opportunity, new hope and a whole lot of new phones.

This morning, we will travel through time. Look at the information revolution. Think about what it tells us about the future.

Before we go, let’s mark the present so we can find our way back. Here is the digital world of today, explaining itself in a You Tube video: 

So, how did we get here?

There was an information revolution. Information won.

The digital age is the fourth great age of human communication.  We survived the visual age, language, mass media and now the digital age.

We call it the information explosion because it’s happening in a historical heartbeat. Mass media with movable metal type came just 500 years ago and the World Wide Web only 20 years ago.

At the Newseum, the world’s first museum of news, I realized why the pro-information forces won the revolution.

We had on our side two basic human needs – the need to know and the need to tell. These needs are growing, changing, boundless. They forever push the frontiers of media.

What that means is that every American generation – not just today’s – every generation grows up with a new form of media on the rise.

Those who grew up with the American revolution also grew up with Tom Paine. Pamphlets were best-sellers.

A generation later, during a time of partisan rancor, the weekly papers came into their own.

Then, a whole raft of media rose up, generation by generation. One by one they rose:  popular daily papers, The Associated Press via the telegraph, illustrated magazines, big city dailies, printed photographs, radio and the movies, and glossy magazines.

Everybody knows the boomers grew up with television. But something even bigger came: Generation X grew up with the web – and video games. They were the first generation of digital natives.

Today’s millennial generation are children of social and mobile media. They prefer their media personal, portable and participatory.

Every American generation, a different form of media on the rise.

So what’s next?

For that we turn to science fiction. Why? Because imagination predicts the future better than extrapolation.

In 25 years, we’ll enter the era of Intelligent Media. Sensors, drones and  data will be everywhere. All media -- not just phones -- will be smart. Garbage cans will know when they are full. Robots will know how to empty them. Everything will know when to turn itself on and off.

The next generation, in the middle of the 21st century, will come of age in the era of BioMedia. Computers and the human brain will speak the same language. Those suffering injuries or old age will welcome the chips and implants of machines inside of them. We’ll allow media under our skin because it will extend our lives.

The second half of this century will see the era of Hyper Media. The lines will blur between people and machines. You really will be able to learn kung fu by downloading it into your brain. Machines will become smarter than us. Some say they will have lives of their own.

At the end of the 21th century, we’ll be in the era of Omni Media. Everything in physical space will also exist in cyberspace. Everything will be media. Humans, nature and machines will be woven into a sentient environment that we can barely imagine today but hope by then we can somehow control.

I know, it seems crazy. Of course, going to the moon was crazy when Jules Verne proposed it. Geostationary satellites were crazy when Arthur C. Clark envisioned them. Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. Star Trek communicators. Skype on the Jetson’s, the tablet in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Crazy but now common. Fiction but now fact.

It’s even crazier than usual because we’re not just seeing a generational change. All of these future eras are part of a whole new age, the Digital Age, faster every day and changing everything. Mass media before the digital age were one-way, like an assembly line. Today they are multi-directional, like a web.

Let’s make it simple: There are only two kinds of organizations in this new age. Those that adapt and those that don’t.

Are you part of these trends?

  • Social media, symbolized by Facebook going from zero to a billion users in less than a decade.
  • Mobile media, with five billion users and growing
  • E-commerce, growing fast and going mobile. (Today’s children will have no problems using phones as wallets.)

Yes, media today is personal, portable and participatory, just like your smart phone.

We hope this brave new age will bring about a digital renaissance.

But today’s tools are not magic. They are extensions of the human mind, both our good thoughts and the bad.

Networks can unite, or divide. Cyberspace can be at peace, or at war. It’s what we make of it.

In his book, C-Scape, Larry Kramer has some advice for those of you who are trying to adapt. Writes Larry: “Every company is a media company.”

Think about that. What does it mean to you?