Friday, June 14, 2013

The Digital Age as Part of Human Evolution

What does The Digital Age mean for human beings, and how might we attempt to understand it from the wider perspective of human evolutionary history?  First, a brief literature review of what is significant about The Digital Age.

Roswell and Walsh (2011) write that digital age designing on screen “has not only transformed how we make meaning” but also “transformed ways of reconstructing and renegotiating our identities.”  Thomas, Joseph, Laccetti, Mason, Mills, Perril & Pullinger (2007) argue that “each of us, every day, is involved in staggering acts of comprehension and production” due to the “world of multiple literacies, multiple media, and multiple demands on our attention” that surrounds us.  Alexander and Levine (2008) argue that digital networks and social media have changed the very pattern of narrative, making stories more “open-ended, branching, hyperlinked, cross-media, participatory, exploratory, and unpredictable” than before.  Conversely, Mifsud (2005) argues that The Digital Age is nothing dramatically new, and is mainly about “mastering processes” deemed valuable in the social and temporal contexts in which we live – something we as human beings have always done.

Why all this complexity?

One thing seems certain.  When it comes to the dual acts of creating meaning and communicating ideas, the book has been eclipsed by the screen in importance; and human beings are becoming increasingly multi-literate, multi-modal, and interactive as a result.  This brings us back to the larger question posed at the beginning of this post:  what does this all mean?

I have yet to come across any compelling scientific evidence to suggest that we, as human beings, are not evolving.  If we think of ourselves as an evolutionary species, it then becomes possible to see The Digital Age as part of an ongoing process of human evolution.  Let me simply chart what I am talking about:

Nomadic (Early) Humans (Dawn of humans to c. 4000 BCE)
Civilized Humans
(c. 4000 BCE to c. 1600 CE)
Enlightened Humans
(c. 1600 CE to 1920 CE)
Technological Humans
(c. 1920 CE to 1990 CE)
Digital Humans
(c. 1990 CE to Present)
Key Development:
Spoken Language
Written Language
Printing  Press/Simple Mass Communication – beginning of  “The Book Age”
Radio and Television Mass Media/Complex Mass Communication – beginning of “The Screen Age”
Internet (WWW) and Personal Electronic Device Mass Media/Sophisticated, Multimodal, Global and Viral Mass Communication – extension of The Screen Age
- Sensory
- Gestural
- Oral
- Simple Print (Record Keeping; Inventories)
- Complex Print (Narratives, Rhetoric, Interpretive Discourse)
- Simple Mass Media
- Visual/Interpretive
- Aural/Interpretive
- Analogue/Multimodal
- Complex Mass Media

- Digital/Multimodal
Mode of Communication:
Simple Interactive
Simple Didactic
Complex Didactic
Sophisticated  Didactic/Multimodal
Complex Interactive/Multimodal

I sketched this chart in an attempt to illustrate the way our human communication has evolved over time.  What I have not sketched out, however, and what I cannot sketch out, is the impact The Digital Age will have on the way we think, function and interact as a species – in other words, how we will evolve because of the changes brought to us by The Digital Age.  These are topics far too complex for such a brief post.  However, the following clip from the old TV series Star Trek, The Next Generation offers some intriguing possibilities.

Please Click Here:  Borg

In any case, it seems almost certain that The Digital Age, The Digital Revolution – or whatever we want to call it – will ultimately be seen as a watershed as significant as any other in human history.  Where it will lead us we cannot yet say.  Are we developing a form of swarm intelligence?  Is this the embryonic advent of the interface of organic and machine life and/or the development of the human hive mind?  Whatever the answer to these philosophical questions, embracing the digital age, shaping it, and being shaped by it, all appear to be inextricable aspects of the human evolutionary destiny.

Thanks for reading.


Bryan, A., Levine, A. (2008) Storytelling: Emergence of a new genre.  Retrieved

Mifsud, L., (2005). What counts as digital literacy: Experiences from a seventh
grade classroom in Norway. Retrieved from

Rowsell, J. & Walsh M. (2011). Rethinking literacy education in new times:
            Multimodality, multiliteracies, & new literacies. Retrieved from

Thomas, S., Joseph, C., Laccetti, J., Mason, B., Mills, S., Perril, S., & Pullinger, K.
(2007). Transliteracy: Crossing Divides. First Monday, Vol.12 (12). 

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