By M. Rex Miller
The Digital Dynamic
How Communications Media
Shape Our World
Marshall McLuhan famously de-
As digital media become the dominant clared, “The medium is the mes-
sage.” Watching a war on television
means of communication, they will is very different from reading about
the war in a newspaper.
usher in a new paradigm, transforming Television began entering homes
less than 60 years ago and swiftly
changed almost every aspect of
how we think, behave, relate, and human life—from business and edu-
cation to politics and sports. Now,
create. A business consultant digital communications—computers,
PDAs, the Internet, Blackberries,
and communications theorist etc.—are bringing another communi-
cations revolution that is likely to
produce an even more radical trans-
offers a method for understanding formation of our lives.
For clues to what may happen in
the changes we will face—and for the years ahead, let’s look at what
occurred as a result of two previous
revolutions in the dominant medium
better managing those changes. of communications—the shift from
THE FUTURIST May-June 2005 www.wfs.org 31
oral communications to printed me- mits thoughts to be examined and than their next-door neighbors. Tele-
dia in the fifteenth century and the tested from many different perspec- vision broke down barriers that had
very recent shift from printed media tives. separated people from each other.
to broadcasting. The dominance of print communi- Poor people now could see how rich
cation created more-analytic, ra- people actually lived. Whites and
tional minds that see the world as blacks could see the realities of racial
The Print and Broadcast
parts assembled in an orderly whole, segregation. The American people
like the words in a sentence. So could see the horrors of the Vietnam
When Johannes Gutenberg in- printed literature enabled linear, “ra- War, and their government could not
vented movable type about 1454 and tional” thought to largely supplant explain away its failures.
printed the Bible, he initiated a revo- the “irrational” thought of the oral Print had made reason king and
lution in communications. Guten- world. Understanding through stimulated reflective thinking, but
berg’s Bible became a best-seller, and analysis began replacing under- now broadcast elevated desire and
the art of printing spread rapidly. standing through dialogue. With emotion and encouraged reflexive
Within 70 years, Europe had more printing, the West exploded with thinking—the kind of thinking we do
than 1,000 printers, and books were new discoveries. Books nourished while driving a car. Television de-
widely available. Later, newspapers the Renaissance, the Reformation, mands only our attention and re-
and magazines proliferated. the Enlightenment, science, and action, requiring of us no analysis,
Printed words, unlike speech, much else. no historical perspective, and no
remain fixed in space and motionless Print continues to play a critically connection to any other event.
over time. This permanence allows important role in communications— Printed words drive us toward
readers to return to the same words just as does speaking—but it lost its reaching a conclusion or having a
again and again—a process that per- dominance in about 1950 to televi- perspective, but TV images leave in-
sion, which now feeds formation open to many meanings.
PHOTOS: PHOTOS.COM more information into They encourage us to keep our op-
people’s minds than does tions open and “go with the flow.”
print. The Print Era lasted for 400 years,
Television showed the coming to an end within the lifetime
world to itself. Hundreds of people still alive. The Broadcast
of millions of people sit- Era will have a much shorter run.
ting at home could watch Already, broadcast’s dominance is
stirring events in faraway yielding to the digital media, and
places and see the they will likely become the domi-
world’s leaders more fre- nant media of communication by
quently and up closer about 2010.
32 THE FUTURIST May-June 2005 www.wfs.org
The Emergence of
A Digital Culture
About the Millennium Matrix
Digital media combine text, graph-
ics, sound, and data in such a way
Author M. Rex Miller has spent the last 25 years researching
that we experience things in a much
social change through the lens of communications. Three of his
more integrated format—multi-
passions—communications, religion, and business—powerfully
sensory, multimedia, and multi-
shape his new book, Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Re-
networked. As a result, boundaries
framing the Future of the Church.
separating disciplines, organizations,
The book presents the matrix he developed to show how institu-
structures, and people begin to dis-
tions transformed during the successive shifts in the main commu-
solve. We see convergences of things
nications media. Miller focuses primarily on applying the matrix
that once were sharply separated.
to the Christian church and offers rich insights into how religion
The message and the messenger
has shifted through the centuries and is likely to shift in the future.
become a holographic reality capable
The Millennium Matrix (2004, 279 pages, cloth, $23.95) was pub-
of infinite change and complexity.
lished by Jossey-Bass and may be ordered through the Futurist
In a digital environment, things
that might take decades to surface
within natural systems can show up
within minutes. The threat of a ter-
rorist attack or an outbreak of a
deadly disease reverberates globally,
systemwide. and Time Warner Inc. all began as life. The increasing speed of commu-
As a result of digital media, our separate businesses—a phone com- nications accelerates business trans-
basis of knowing and understanding pany, an Internet service provider, actions, which accelerates produc-
is shifting to an interactive, global, and a publisher; each was based on tion and marketing, which accelerates
anytime, anywhere, multimedia ex- different technologies (telephone capital growth, which accelerates in-
perience with countless sources to wire, cybertechnologies, printing vestment, which accelerates further
explore and test. This experience is press). But digital technologies pro- the development of new technologies.
quite different from the intellectually vided them all with a common plat- 4. Intangibility: In the new digital
passive experience of watching tele- form, and they merged. environment, we have little or no
vision or the emotionally distant ex- The new digital world is character- connection to the original sources of
perience of reading. Consequently, ized by seven qualities: information and things we buy, use,
our minds and bodies will undergo a 1. Interconnection: We used to live or believe. We’re moving away from
rewiring to support this different in a “domino world,” in which one a world we can touch and hold to a
sensory experience. change logically caused the next. world that operates on intangibles
Convergence is perhaps the key N o w w e h a ve e n t e re d a c h a i n - like information and reputation.
characteristic of the coming Digital reaction world of exponential shifts. Arthur Andersen, the accounting
Era. Convergence is an inherent Interconnection means that our firm, offered some tangible services
property of our digital medium of problems and opportunities are inti- such as accounting, but it also of-
information and communications, mately linked. Emerging networks— fered intangibles, such as its credibil-
because all its many forms (text, im- virtual communities based on com- ity and reputation. When its client
age, data, sound) can exist on a mon interests—have begun to level Enron imploded in scandal, Ander-
single medium, such as a disc, and our hierarchical organizations. sen’s reputation went up in smoke.
reproduced through a common digi- 2. Complexity: Complex systems 5. Convergence: Print, graphics,
tal language of bits and bytes. Digi- behave in complex ways. Simply sound, and data can all reside in a
tal data makes no distinction changing a line of computer code digital medium, such as a CD or
between Romeo and Juliet and that can cause ripple effects that move DVD, in the form of bits and bytes of
snapshot of your child on a pony, through the systems in many differ- zeros and ones. In digital media, the
between geological calculations and ent ways. Faced with such complex- past boundaries of knowledge and
the sound of a Bach cantata. They ity, old analytical tools cannot organizations blur, crumble, and
are all merely sequences of zeros and anticipate the potential conse- eventually integrate in new ways.
ones. quences of actions. A single word 6. Immediacy: Digital media shrink
In the digital world, the bound- from Federal Reserve Board Chair- the time allowed between question
aries that once separated physics, man Alan Greenspan may cause fi- and answer, request and fulfillment.
poetry, metaphysics, and other disci- nancial markets to collapse and even We are now expected to respond to
plines are beginning to blur. Nano- governments to fall. the world with a speed similar to
technology is emerging as a world- 3. Acceleration: Each new technol- that required of fighter pilots in com-
transforming science, bringing ogy and concept leads to faster bat. An F-16 pilot must master a dif-
together physics, chemistry, and change, so that change compounds ferent set of rules for decision mak-
biology. AT&T Broadband, AOL, and accelerates the pace of human continued on page 36
THE FUTURIST May-June 2005 www.wfs.org 33
Four Communications Eras
The following chart by M. Rex Miller shows how shifts in communications media can affect other aspects of human life.
Oral Era Print Era
Bard. Play, recitation, ritual, ceremony, family, Book. History, indexing, encyclopedias, diction-
Collective elders, and genealogy provide continuity with the aries, libraries, catalogs, museums, schools, and
Memory past. organizations help preserve the past.
Tribal village. Each person is a composite of the community. Inter- Independent individual. Concepts and principles inform character.
Sense of action is restricted to a small, localized population. People come in contact with a wider range of individuals through the
Identity thoughts and ideas of teachers and through books from around the
world. Individuals feel autonomous and can think private thoughts.
Relational. Truth’s credibility is tied to the messenger’s credibility, Principle. Truth is based on the content of the message alone, because
Truth because message and messenger are tied together. written language developed structure and rules (logic, history, analysis,
expert opinion, and other tools of deduction) to determine meaning.
Dialectic. Open-ended form of question and answer. This method does Logic. Linear thought arrives at an either–or conclusion. Print reaches
Reasoning not aim for a fixed conclusion but attempts to reach equilibrium its destination with greater efficiency than open-ended conversation,
Process between two juxtaposed concepts. and logic offers closure.
Revelation. Understanding comes from revelation, direct experience, Law of identity. Understanding begins by recognizing the objective
Perception and knowledge handed down over generations. Knowing something is reality of things. Knowing is linked to seeing external distinctions.
of Reality linked to understanding the internal nature of a thing.
Process-centered. The search for truth and understanding comes by Content-centered. The orientation is toward standardized learning.
Learning sitting at the feet of a master or guru. Learning is a preparatory Students are batched according to age or learning level. The material is
process, and the skills of learning and inquiry are often the focus of the taught consistently to all, and students work to achieve tangible mile-
teacher and his or her student(s). stones.
Farm. Focus is on the land and the goal is to grow the crop. Harvest is Factory. Goal is to produce more at lower cost. Reducing things and
Work the reward. labor to their simplest components along with a logical process of as-
sembly will lead to productivity.
Land. Acquiring land and developing its use. Capital and manufacturing. Wealth acquisition centers on the use of
Building capital and labor to produce goods and services.
Present or presence. Time is a continuous present because we have Past or objectification. The past is separated from the present. Print
Sense of no recorded history, only retold stories. The retelling of experience creates a sense of passing time because we have the means of compar-
Time makes past events seem current. ing past words and descriptions with current thought and reality. Time
marches on. A word read is a word in the past. The contrast between
past words and current thoughts creates a sensation of progress—
moving forward from the permanent record.
Steward. A steward acts as a caretaker for the entire household, taking Manager. Economic entities are characterized by command and con-
Management the perspective of the owner and fulfilling not only his functions but his trol, division of labor, vertical integration (owning all the resources and
intentions. means of production instead of outsourcing). Management is based on
the premise that people need to be structured and tightly supervised in
order to be effective.
Reliability. There is value in what is tried and true. Productivity. Productivity is valued. To get it, break work down into its small-
Value est tasks and focus effort to accomplish each task as quickly as possible.
Meeting the need. People will take what they get. Improving standards. People take what they need.
Medium of Barter and trade. The ethic of reciprocity in one-on-one valuations. Currency. A rational means of standardizing valuation and providing a
flexible, efficient means of exchange.
Symbolic. Art is a means of interpreting the meaning of life and the Perspective. Art seeks to become visually true or accurate. Art also is
Art sacred. Intricate and disciplined symbolic language is developed to expressed from the artist’s perspective, whereas the symbolic language
reveal the multidimensional reality behind the stories and characters of of early art removed the vantage point of the artist in order to portray a
faith and lore. mystical reality.
34 THE FUTURIST May-June 2005 www.wfs.org
Source: Adapted from The Millennium Matrix by M. Rex Miller (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
Broadcast Era Digital Era
Documentary. Excerpts from newspapers, maga- Database. Networking, user groups, FAQs (frequently asked
zines, television programs, news audiotape, and questions), search engines, databases, and virtual communi-
videotape help viewers research and relive the past. ties help to examine the past and model it toward the future.
Crowded stranger. Image and impressions inform character in a fluid, Cybersoul or anonymous intimacy. Individuals design separate iden-
ephemeral world. We interact with an even wider range of people tities for different roles and contexts. Identity comes from the multitude
through television and radio. These unattached and often unselected of interactions from around the globe. We can be a member of numer-
sources aim at a broad audience. The individual as spectator partici- ous communities and experiment with numerous identities.
Existential. Truth is validated through experience, the force of convic- Contextual. Truth is malleable and relevant within particular contexts
tion, or some tangible outcome. The concrete reality of the moment of meaning. Community (virtual or otherwise) tests and validates
takes priority over distant and abstract concepts. reality.
Fluid logic. Thought is a process that flows like water, leading to many Systems thinking. Understanding how the parts of a particular sys-
possible outcomes. Conclusions are not fixed and will change, and the tem interrelate and how the system works over time leads to determin-
results can take quantum leaps. So the answer to any logical question ing probable outcomes. Reality is complex and interconnected. Individ-
is, “It depends.” Context and bias are part of the equation. ual events appear random. Instead of a causal chain, multiple potential
outcomes are measured by probability.
Uncertainty principle. Understanding reflects the unique and intimate Chaos theory. Understanding reflects the fact that reality is fluid,
interplay between the observed and the observer and is no longer con- highly complex, and interconnected. It behaves as a system rather than
sidered fixed. as discrete events and is understandable by means of general patterns.
Experience-centered. Text learning is supplemented with movies and Context-centered. Teachers create a collaborative learning commu-
videos. Group presentations, participation, and life experience are often nity. The collective experience takes priority over individual and private
factored in. The focus is on individual students and their unique needs. This needs.
creates a proliferation of curricula and services to address those needs.
Service. The goal becomes to use information about consumers to Federation. Work is organized in networks of independent producers
make products they want or to create demand. This shifts the focus to that collaborate in production. At the same time, the consumers and
collecting and using information in the design, production, and delivery producers collaborate in the production and delivery of goods.
of goods and services.
Distribution and debt. These tools accelerate growth. The shifting Creativity and community. The intellectual content of product is now
tastes of a culture shaped by broadcast create opportunities for compa- more valuable than the material itself. This creates volatile markets.
nies that can quickly respond to those tastes. This shifts the focus Building a loyal and interactive following is the key to building long-
toward more efficient means of distribution. term wealth.
Future or impermanence. History is dead, and the future does not ex- Virtual or time travel. The world is simultaneously seen, heard, felt,
ist. A sound-image captures awareness but leaves nothing to connect it and experienced. The future as well as the past can be seen in the pres-
to. Broadcast media wipe out past references. There is no past—only a ent due to highly realistic representations of past events and scenarios
fleeting present. of possible future events.
Leader. Leadership becomes more important than management. The Interweaver. Networks, virtual teams, and virtual corporations charac-
focus is on how to release the potential of individual workers as op- terize the new economic system. Managers become facilitators or
posed to how best to control them. weavers of networks. Management takes on a less definable structure
and behaves more like a web of collaboration.
Quality. Quality of services is prized; both the process and the whole are Creativity. Creativity is valued in the interactive relationship of con-
important. Lower cost and improved performance are not contradictory. sumer and producer.
Creating want. People take what they want. Creating fulfillment. People design what they want.
Credit. Accelerates the cycle of transactions. Allows for local and Techno-barter. Different mediums of exchange are employed, including
global transactions to occur with equal ease. forums such as eBay, standardization of the euro, frequent-user currency,
affinity programs, reverse auctions.
Concept or process. The artist moves away from a focus on content Interaction or participation. The observer must be drawn into the
to a focus on process, approach, and medium. Familiar expressions are artistic experience and own the artist’s perspective through participa-
deconstructed (as in Cubism) and irrational patterns of chance are ex- tion in it. The line between artist and observer blurs. Art within a digital
plored (as in Jackson Pollock’s work). medium is completely malleable. The artist may become more of a
facilitator of real-time experiments in altered perspectives stimulated
by the content and the observer’s unique response, as in Camille
Utterback’s installation art.
continued from page 33 several grades at a time. In a virtual ment, the North Atlantic tankers
ing, because there is little or no time little red schoolhouse, technology have multiple redundant systems
for reflection in an environment that will afford a shift back to the teach- acting as safeguards and backups.
changes at high speed in an irregu- ing relationship. Continuity will lead They have powerful stabilizers on
lar, disorderly, and unpredictable to greater effectiveness, and that ef- their sides to keep them in position
manner. fectiveness will create opportunities even while enormous waves crash
7. Unpredictability: Complex, highly for mentors and higher levels of ful- over them.
interactive systems behave un- fillment for all concerned. The North Atlantic tankers give us
p re d i c t a b l y. A s a re s u l t , w e l l - But there is a danger to this new a phenomenal metaphor for today’s
intentioned attempts to improve con- form of learning. What happens institutions to consider as they re-
ditions may actually worsen them. A when our play allows us to simulate build themselves for the challenges
legal system that heavily penalizes and rehearse reality? We applaud of the Digital Era. Today’s institu-
physicians who make mistakes may simulation training for pilots or tions must navigate stormy seas of
cause the doctors to give up their physicians—in fact, we demand it. social and technological change. Un-
practices, thus increasing the num- We want them to be able to handle fortunately, we are still building the
ber of people who are sick or in- the chaos of a crisis with icy cool- social equivalent of vacation cruise
capacitated. ness. However, when this simulation liners: large, slow structures made
technology seeps into the hands of for calm, balmy seas and friendly
our youth, we can unwittingly create ports of call. These “cruise-liner” in-
Rethinking Our Institutions
cold-blooded killers, as we saw with stitutions may be a little more user-
The digital media require us to re- 14-year-old Michael Carneal, the boy friendly, but they are built for calm
think our institutions. Our educa- who methodically carried out his seas and a sunny horizon. And that
tional institutions, for example, are murders at a school in Paducah, is not what we are likely to get.
likely to rely increasingly on the dig- Kentucky, in 1997. Carneal killed Today, we need institutions built
ital media—and for good reason. So each victim by one accurate shot. In- like North Atlantic tankers to meet
many of the challenges that schools vestigators found he liked to play a the colossal waves of largely un-
currently face—from rising costs and video game that required shooting predictable social change. They need
textbook obsolescence to flexible “human” targets. This was like the to be highly agile and fast-changing,
schedules and parental involve- training soldiers receive to kill the with extra capacity, awareness of the
ment—have solutions in the new enemy. environment, powerful stabilizers,
technologies. and buffering, like the double hulls
Today, children not yet in school of the tankers.
Facing the Digital Challenge
are adeptly using computers to send Redesigning our institutions for
messages to their friends and down- Clearly, managing the transition stresses and opportunities of the
loading MP3 music files from the into the Digital Era will not be easy Digital Era is now the greatest chal-
Internet. The kids soon learn how to or problem free. We must expect lenge we face. ■
use search engines such as Google to challenges in most of our institu-
get information and put together tions, so we need to rethink them
multimedia presentations for class and build them well for what lies About the Author
projects. These digital kids are learn- ahead. M. Rex Miller is vice presi-
ing to think and work differently A few years ago, I spent several dent of sales and chief
from the TV kids a generation ago. hours with an oil company executive concierge for Spencer Furni-
In the emerging digital culture, charged with designing and con- ture and author of The Mil-
lennium Matrix (Jossey-Bass,
children do not grind out their les- structing the firm’s oil tankers. This
2004). He is a successful
sons by rote memorization. They no helped me construct my own mental
businessman with degrees
longer sit passively in front of a tele- picture of how to build for an envi- in theology and communications theory.
vision and say “Huh?” when asked ronment of turbulent change. His address is 1409 Dartmouth Drive,
what they learned. Children now are Building an oil tanker is an amaz- Southlake, Texas 76092. Telephone 1-214-
absorbed in an interactive-game en- ing feat. The number of details is 498-3055; e-mail rmiller@millenniummatrix.
vironment, pursuing treasure hunts mind-boggling, and the obstacles are com; Web site www.millenniummatrix.com.
of knowledge over the Web. They in- incredible, especially if it is being de- Miller will be speaking on this subject at
tegrate what they learn, expand far signed to face the North Atlantic, the WorldFuture 2005: Foresight, Innovation,
beyond the assignment, and retain a most treacherous environment of all. and Strategy, the World Future Society’s
annual meeting, to be held in Chicago July
high level of enthusiasm. Remember the Titanic!
Youngsters using digital media are North Atlantic tankers must be
pushing education toward self-learn- able to withstand a head-on collision
ing, and it’s likely that self-directed with an iceberg at seven knots. With-
learning will become more and more out dropping anchor, they must
the norm. Teachers will move away maintain a stable position while buf- FEEDBACK: Send your comments
from being grade specialists to be- feted by 50-foot waves. To cope with about this article to email@example.com.
coming general facilitators handling such a turbulent, hostile environ-
36 THE FUTURIST May-June 2005 www.wfs.org