I am intrigued by Winston’s notion that the “Digital Media Revolution” is less of a shocking singular chain of events, as is the common perception, and more of an steady evolution.

I took a history seminar as part of my undergraduate education called “Comparing Modern Revolutions.” In it, we discussed the sequences leading up to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution and (for fun) the “rock and roll revolution.” The greatest takeaway from this class was that revolutions do not happen overnight. Long periods of combined social, civil and financial unrest lead to popular dissatisfaction that escalates over time before a tide of change overpowers the existing system and puts in place another.

Revolutions are catalysts for change– sudden deviations from stagnation. They defy previous patterns and set a new one in place, disrupting the balance.  For Russia, the revolution was sparked by centuries of class inequality, serfdom, and authoritarian rule. The Bolshevik uprising in 1917 was not the first symptom of an impending political shift. The Decembrist revolt in 1825, the assassinations of Tsars Paul I in 1801 and Alexander II in 1881, and a failed revolution in 1905 all served as omens of what was to come, yet the government did little to address the people’s wishes. These were bumps in the road, without much real progress.

Evolution happens organically in a series of fluid, increasing, relatively predictable steps. Small changes are addressed by the system moving forward, not staying the same. Had Russian society adapted to the previously-mentioned pre-revolutionary disturbances– evolved–  the Bolshevik revolution may not have been necessary. Who knows.

Nothing in digital media has been immediately life-changing in a way that disturbs the existing equilibrium, which makes it less revolutionary and more evolutionary. While certain technologies, such as the Univac or the Xerox Alto, might be termed “revolutionary” because they have ultimately determined our current technological model, their integration into society was gradual. The average person did not begin using them immediately: early adopters embraced these technologies first, followed by professional users, followed by the general public. As Winston writes, “…acceptance is never straightforward, however ‘needed’ the technology.” (p. 11) These social constraints prevent new technology from completely disrupting the status quo following Winston’s model of the “‘law’ of the suppression of radical potential,” effectively barring them from being revolutionary.

Another difference between revolution and evolution is agency: evolutions best serve an individual’s (or a species’) needs, while revolutions force these individuals to comply with certain standards. People voluntarily use the technologies that best address a certain purpose; these useful technologies shape the evolution into future technologies. Xerox did not come into homes and offices and say,

People adopted the Alto because it was the best available solution to the task at hand.

Change is integral to social well-being, and takes many forms. Rapid change has come to mean revolution, while evolution is viewed as slow: monkey did not become man overnight! However, the reality is that revolution actually takes time, and evolution can occur over a few generations. The rate of progress, not time, is the true determinant of both.

I definitely need to change the name of my blog to reflect this revelation.

Russian revolution image by 3arabawy via Creative Commons; Xerox image based on one by Marcin Wichary.