Perspective is everything

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada's largest media management operations....

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations.

I am not a monarchist by any stretch of the imagination but I was impressed by the notion of celebrating the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday with a costumed chronological cavalcade depicting the last 100 years.

Passing before the Queen Mother’s hundred-year-old eyes were suffragettes brandishing placards (1900), jitterbugging couples (1930s), World War Two soldiers (1940s), Beatles look-a-likes (1960s), punks (1970s) and a dozen little kids under a sheet making like the Chunnel (1990s).

Great idea. The costumed players neatly encapsulated the high-profile stories of their time – events that would define their generation and have a lasting impact on generations to follow.

But if I had been born on Aug. 4, 1900, I’d want to see a media and technology parade. After all, were there ever 100 years more jam-packed with invention than the hundred years just ended? And to think that there are people alive today who witnessed this entire spectrum of development!

My media parade would be divided into three distinct eras: Invention (1900-1950); Practice (1951-1965) and Smaller/Faster (1966-present).

The most dramatic period of technological advancement took place during the first 50 years of the 20th century. So the era of Invention would kick off my media parade, while Fleming, the inventor of the 1904 vacuum tube and the father of broadcast media, would be at the head of the line.

Following behind him would come the three-man team of Zworykin, Baird and Farnsworth. They blended the scanning disc receiver with the Kinetoscope, the cathode ray tube and photoelectricity to create television. It’s hard to imagine what a different world we’d have had without those guys.

There’s more. Mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing would have a featured spot in my parade. His 1936 book, entitled On Computing Numbers, described the theory underlying modern computing.

And in 1937, Carlson was credited with inventing photocopying technology. (While we flatter ourselves that media convergence is a new concept, it is not. It was more than 60 years ago that Carlson applied his understanding of charged-surface behaviour to mimeograph technology to produce an invention that revolutionized printed media production.)

Looking back, those four developments – the vacuum tube, the television, computing theory and the photocopier – quickly transformed how billions of people around the world received news, information and entertainment. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Invention era. Broadcast, print production and computing were all given the breath of life.

Next comes Practice, an era marked by significant technological development. It was during this period that today’s computers and cell phones got their practical workup. Leading this portion of the parade are Kirby, Hoerni and Noyce. It was in 1959 that their combination of transistor, silicon doping and electron microscopy led to the invention of integrated circuits.

Near the end of the 1960s, the century’s final significant act of convergence would take place. The marriage of switching theory with military networking, packet switching and mainframe time-sharing resulted in the invention of the Internet. And we all know just how important that was.

The most recent era, the one we’re experiencing today, is marked by the development of high-speed computing, broadband Internet access, wireless products and services, and smaller, more powerful hand-held computing devices.

The first commercial fax machine, the 1966 Xerox Telecopier, the 1967 cordless telephone, Atari’s 1972 Pong video game and the 1977 Apple II personal computer were all notable developments earning a place in the Smaller/Faster segment of my parade.

At a time when we’re all feeling the pressures of technological change, it can only help to step back and look at that change in perspective. If you think the Internet has radically changed our lives, imagine the impact of television, print production and computer technology on generations before. The population of the time not only witnessed these radical technological transformations but two world wars as well.

That’s the great thing about my media parade. It makes today’s technological overload so much easier to manage. Looked at in the context of a century, all we’re really doing is making our predecessors’ inventions that much smaller and faster.

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