Constitutive Decisions We Make Today to Affect All Future Generations

May 8th, 2007 by Barry Caplan | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I am about 3/4 through a book that is going to stick with me for a long time: The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications by Princeton University sociology professor Paul Starr.

Starr’s thesis is that political, or what he calls “constitutive” decisions are key in driving the shape and trends that drive innovation in communications industry. He argues that technical and business innovation does not occur in a vacuum, and that political decisions, often at the national or sovereign level, can have long lasting effects.

The book covers 500 years of history, starting with the era after the creation of the printing press, and running to the end of World War 2(I believe, as I am not yet finished) . The focus is primarily on several countries different decisions about how to react and adapt to changes in technologies. He contrasts Great Britain, France, and the American Colonies and later the United States, as successive rounds of innovations in communications challenged the citizens and respective governments to decide what was important to the society.

Each time a decision was made or not made, it has turned out to have long lasting effects. That the US would emerge in the last half of the 20th century as the worldwide leader in communications technology and content production is not a foregone conclusion Starr posits. Rather each cycle of innovation forced decisions anew, and these added up over time to create the system we have now.

For example, at the birth of the United States, constitutive questions were decided by the Founding Fathers that had far reaching effects even today. The former colonies decided that it was important for citizens to be part of the process, because unlike any country that came before, it was clearly stated that the power in the government resides in the people, rather then the other way around.

Important decisions were made that educated citizens are the best citizens. Political, or constitutive, decisions were made from the outset that government supported distribution channels for education, meaning schools everywhere, would be an important factor of American Society.

Similarly, government subsidized distribution channels for the distant communications of the day was and remains important. The US Postal Service was to reach everywhere, out to where even the fewest people were, rates for newspapers were subsidized, and mail was not to be opened en route.

All of this, and more, is in contrast to decisions other countries made and continued to make. Soon, Americans had the largest press, the best educated citizens, the most effective telegraph system, and more: Innovations in business models in competitive journalism markets foreshadow the changes we are seeing today on the Internet.

Countries regularly face choices regarding the amount and types of regulations to place on technology, and that has not stopped in the Internet era at all. The calls for restrictions on freedom of access, on taxes, on ability to integrate industries both vertically and horizontally, to say nothing of internationally, are all matters of choice of nations and their citizens.

Traditionally, US citizens have been the most active and ultimately made the least restrictive choices in the long run during each wave of new communication innovations. Will we continue to do so now?

Are these decisions ours to make in such a communication channel as the internet, that touches each of us indidividually, but allows us to connect around the world instantly wiht anyone else, while vast unseen corporations own and manage the infrastructure?

What is government’s role? It is easy, as Americans, to say there should be no, or at least minimal role, in regulating the Internet, but even at a high level, other governments are making different decisions about how free their citizens are on the net: China in particular comes to mind. Others may make decisions regarding tariffs, licenses, and other direct and indirect regulations that affect innovation and the ability of those so governed to participate fully.

Starr’s arguments echo and mesh with other prominent media thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan and Constitutional scholar Lawrence Lessig.

The way I recall McLuhan from my college years is that he felt communication evolved to project power over increasing distances – in other words, you couldn’t control or govern beyond the distance you could effectively communicate.

Lessig’s position is closer to that of Starr – that decisions about openness vs. closedness of emerging communications technologies are important ones for societies to make, because once in place, they have profound effects on the future innovation that is possible.

McLuhan says that decisions made about the ability to communicate affect the relative power that sovereign powers and individuals can project over their existences. Starr demonstrates how this has been so since the days when manuscripts handwritten by monks represented the state of the art in communications technology and markets. Lessig writes about how those choices face us again right now in technical, legal, and marketplace arenas, and shows how the choices we make today will affect us for many generations, in fact, all generations, to come.

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