Technology is a part of our lives, and we seem to take it for granted. But do we, really? Looking at the different stages and revolutions of technology in relation to art and design practice as well as the products and services affecting the way practitioners work, think and live, this article explores the idea of generational identity through technology. Concerned with culture and expectations, technology penetration and the things we overlook and take for granted because of the time we were born, Sarah Kante takes us on a journey from the Gutenberg press to apps.
Every one of us has been born in a particular technological era, be it access to the Internet, ‘instant’ communication, or the possibility of talking live to anyone anywhere in the world through mobiles or Skype. Technology shapes the way we live, work and think. Whilst digital technology seems to have accelerated the pace at which we have to adapt to new products and services, technology has revolutionised the way creative practitioners work for many generations before us.
Of the technologies that are so integrated in our lives that we have trouble even qualifying them as ‘tech’, nothing has revolutionised the world more than the printing press. Widely regarded as one of the most influential inventions in the 2nd millennium, the printing press revolutionised the way people conceived the world they lived in and communicated information. The first print technology was developed by Bi Sheng in China between 1041 and 1408. In Korea, the movable metal type printing technique was invented in the early thirteenth century during the Goryeo Dynasty. In Europe, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing system by both adapting existing technologies and making inventions of his own in 1450. It led to the first assembly-line style production of books. Mass communication emerged through the new technology in Renaissance Europe, and broke the monopoly of the elite on education and the circulation of information and points of view.
In relation to the art and design practices of today, a technology that revolutionised the field is of course photography. The Camera Obscura ‘device’ had been known to scholars since the times of Aristotle, but we had to wait until the 19th century for drawings in light (photography) to emerge. The first photoetching was an image produced in 1822 by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. Taking eight hours to expose, Niépce sought to find a new process. He worked with Louis Daguerre and experimented with silver compounds until his death in 1833. In 1837, Daguerre developed the daguerreotype and took the first ever photograph of a person in 1838. Hercues Florence in Brazil had created a very similar process in 1832 (naming it Photographie), and English inventor William Fox Talbot had discovered another way to fix a silver process image but had kept it secret. After reading about Daguerre’s invention, Talbot refined his process so that portraits were made readily available to the masses.
In the mid-19th century, inventions such as the phenakistoscope and zoetrope showed that carefully designed sequences of drawings would appear to show the objects actually moving if they were displayed one after the other at a sufficiently rapid rate. The use of sequences of photographs in these devices was limited, as the emulsions available were not sensitive enough to allow for the short exposures needed to photograph moving objects.
In the late 1870s Eadweard Muybridge created the first animated image sequences photographed in real time. By the end of the 1880s, the invention of motion picture cameras allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film. The first motion pictures were a static shot with no editing or cinematic techniques. Around the turn of the 20th century, several scenes of films were put together to tell a story. At this time, films were purely visual. The first device that could record sounds as they passed through the air (but could not play them back) was the phonautograph patented by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857. The first practical sound recording and reproduction device was the phonograph cylinder invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 and patented in 1878.
Innocenzo Manzetti, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reiss, Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison have all been credited with pioneering work on the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to be awarded a patent for the electric telephone by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in March 1876. Shortly after the patent was awarded, and therefore the telephone “invented”, Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskas invented the telephone switchboard, which allowed the formation of telephone exchanges, and eventually networks.
From there, it was only a matter of time before instantaneous communication was widespread: from a telephone in every home to mobiles and the ultimate network, the Internet…
For all of us, the Internet is a given. How many times have we found ourselves completely at a loss because our connections were down? It is hard to remember a time before the Internet – or mobile phones – even for someone like me, who was born when you still had to be on time (no last minute texts to apologise or cancel) and look up stuff in books to write essays.
Yet, it was only in 1969 that CompuServe was the first commercial Internet provider for the public in the United States. The first email was sent in 1971 and the World Wide Web Technology – this little thing all our lives really depend on – was only donated to the world in 1993 by CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). Google didn’t appear until 1998 and one of the first Social Media sites, Friends Reunited, was founded in 1999 to relocate past school friends.
The Internet and World Wide Web are not only extremely young, the things Generation Y (birth years between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) believes have always been around did not appear until after the turn of the millennium: Wikipedia and iPod both saw life in 2001.
Whilst the first site dates back to the 20th century (just – 1999), the real emergence of social media – whose mastery and reliance on could be argued to be the defining trait of Generation Y – is truly a thing of the 21st century.
Myspace and LinkedIn were both started in 2003, Facebook and Flickr in 2004, Youtube in 2005 and Twitter launched in 2006.
Unfriend became the New Oxford American Dictionary world of the year in 2009, which truly says it all.
This is how tech defines generations: not only the tech we use but the tech that becomes so intertwined with our lives that new associated ‘words’ like ‘unfriend’ and ‘lol’ carry meaning. Whilst the Internet and World Wide Web are established, social media is still something that betrays someone’s age. To put it more plainly, my mum might be able to send better constructed emails than me and to ‘Google’ (verb) the hell out of any topic, but why anyone would try to express any worthy thoughts in less than 140 characters or what the difference between a “Feed”, a “Wall” and a “Status” is not only make no sense to her, but carry very little meaning and interest.
On the other hand, the assumption that because someone is part of the Y Generation, also known as the ‘net generation’, he or she is an expert when it comes to all things tech is misleading. Whilst there are most definitely generational identities defined by and through technology, generational cultural assumptions of the ability to use said technology are even more present. As an art and design student ‘born digital’, you are expected to be fluent with technologies, digital or otherwise. The assumptions and expectations can sometimes be far from the truth: being born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s does not instantaneously make you digitally literate. Being born in a digital era may shape who you are and what you are used to, but it does not guarantee your ability to use or evaluate digital technologies in ways that will enable you to flourish creatively, socially or intellectually. To be digitally literate, arts and design students and practitioners need to be able to critically engage with the technologies, participate meaningfully with them through their practice, and understand the social and cultural contexts within which they operate. And this is not something that comes to you naturally because of the year in which you were born.
Generational identity is a way to define a group’s unique characteristics according to the era they were born. Some people believe it is inherently impossible to do so, but many have tried to define broad cultural similarities and historical impact on generation. Major experiences and events can bring to a generation a shared identity, shared values, attitudes and outlook on the world in which they live and work.
When it comes to art and design, generational identities shape and, to some extent, inform our practices. Not only do our lives change, our practices evolve with each new technology, each one bringing about new aesthetics, new possibilities, and new ways of expressing creativity – to the point of creating new ‘creatives’: the photographer, moving image artist, sound artist, web designer, interaction designer…
In the article on the communication of fashion in the digital age, I reported a conversation with Gareth Wrighton, a 2nd year FCP student who believes that the “younger generation will be able to create and deliver more creative apps than we are because they will have been born with the technology.” Tablets and apps are the latest (ish) thing, and we can still take a step back and find the video of the baby trying to swipe a paper magazine like an iPad amazing and a little bit scary. But when this baby grows up and goes off to CSM, will she really want to make apps or will she find it as boring as we do designing email templates?
It all comes down to our tech expectations, and these are directly related to our generational identity: tech expectations are the things we take for granted from technology. It was once absolutely mind blowing for people to see a projection of a moving image; we got over it. I can only too well imagine the massive ‘whoopee’ of elation when that first telegraph was sent; the puzzlement and errors, and eventually, the taps on the backs when the first magazine was laid out on a Macintosh with Adobe software; we got over it.
But more importantly, we, as arts and design students and practitioners, understand what these technologies are about, the creative possibilities they enable, and how they impact on the cultural and social landscape, as well as our practices.
We expect things of technology because we are used to it, the baby in the video will expect and not think twice about apps, tablets, and interactive content. Will she be better at making apps than my generation because she will have been born with it? Maybe, but it will mainly depend on whether her digital understanding evolves beyond the pure joy of swiping one’s fingers on a glass screen and seeing interactive content flash before her eyes. Digital literacy goes beyond accepting technologies as a given, or simply expecting things of the technology around us: it is definitely more than your date of birth. I believe the arts and design students of today should be able to design and code apps that are creatively challenging and exciting for future consumers, regardless of whether they were born with the tech or not.
Brief history of Social Media: http://www.uncp.edu/home/acurtis/NewMedia/SocialMedia/SocialMediaHistory.html
Media experiences, discourses and generational identity: an empirical research: http://centridiricerca.unicatt.it/osscom_Rossi_Stefanelli_ECREA.pdf
Generation Z: A look at the technology and media habits of today’s teens: http://www.wikia.com/Generation_Z:_A_Look_at_the_Technology_and_Media_Habits_of_Today%E2%80%99s_Teens
Technology Expectations of the Net Generation: http://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/educating-net-generation/technology-and-learning-expectations-net-generation
Technology and the College generation: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/fashion/technology-and-the-college-generation.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&
BA Graphic Design: www.csm.arts.ac.uk/courses/ba-graphic-design/
MA Communication Design: www.csm.arts.ac.uk/courses/ma-communication-design/
Digital/Material Relationships: CSM Letterpress Workshop: http://digitalpresent.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2013/06/26/digitalmaterial-relationships-csm-letterpress-workshop/