The Myth and Partial Reality of Disruptive Technology

 

Whether it was the first brick phone to present day smartphones, not a day goes by in Silicon Valley where we don’t hear another technology company disrupting our lives and creating innovative products to connect people and allow communication to sidestep barriers but technology has always had detractors. Consider the written language which Plato says  in  “The Superiority of the Spoken Word. Myth of the Invention of Writing,”  that oral communication is superior to writing. For Plato, he notes that oral communications allows the speaker to immediately address an audience and to explain or clarify an idea to an interlocutor while arguing that writing is “unresponsive” and devoid of social contact.

 

In “Writing Restructures Thought” Walter Ong addressed Plato’s concerns by noting that the written text will always have a level of ambiguity but writing can reduce a significant amount of it.  He says writing has its limits and parameters and this can give a writer exigence to make conscious decisions so that the message can be accessed by the audience; Ong has said that writers will invoke their audience and fictionalize the people they are writing to in order to attend to their potential needs. In addition, Ong thinks the unresponsive nature of the written language can promote objectivity because it creates distance between the writer and the idea. Instead of judging the delivery of the orator, the idea is isolated from the writer and if the idea can withstand scrutiny, it may last for a significant time.

 

While Plato and Ong are arguing over the value of communication, we also have to consider the purpose and audience that we are addressing. For example, individuals in direct sales may benefit from developing their oral skills to reach their quota whereas a copywriter needs to be a maestro with his or her words. But even these lines are blurry. Sales people could benefit from invoking an ambiguous audience and by anticipating who they may speak to, they can prepare for the unexpected. Likewise, copywriters should have a target audience to address, tailoring an advertisement to the consumer’s desires. Whether you are in sales or in advertising, you can draw from each medium to create new technologies to communicate; the limitations from writing can be supplemented by the strengths of speaking and vice versa.

 

In reading Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixel,” I read that some technologies were brushed aside. For example, the phone was seen as incapable of replacing the telegram because people preferred permanent records. Just because the first iteration of a technology has limitation doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Rather, these limitations  provides an opportunity for the innovator disruptors to fill that gap. Nowadays, we can record and transcribe our phone conversations. To bemoan the downfall of society because of the adoption of new technology is to be trapped in the past. As Ong ironically alludes to, the written language made Plato’s ideas accessible to a wider mass–something even Plato couldn’t orally dispute.

 

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