As the Sputnik satellite launched in 1957, somewhere in Canada, a 46 year-old scholar named Marshall McLuhan looked up at the sky and foresaw that Sputnik was the first of many. Soon the whole Earth would be like a theatre enclosed in an arch of satellites. Asked what this might mean, McLuhan declared that the whole population of the planet would become actors in a new kind of performance.
A little less than a decade later, the BBC executive Aubrey Singer pressed the ‘live’ button on ‘Our World.’ This was the first ever live, international, satellite television production. Largely conjured from the imagination of Singer, close to four hundred million people tuned in to watch transmissions from nineteen different nations. Under Singer’s instructions, no politician was allowed to appear. He required that each participating nation would be represented only by an artist or cultural figure. The Greeks showcased Maria Callas and the Spanish featured Pablo Picasso. But the whole show was stolen at 8.54pm GMT when the transmission switched to London and the world’s three Intelsat satellites carried the first bars of The Beatles performing ‘All You Need Is Love.’
Eighteen years later, jarred into life by newsreel of poverty in Ethiopia, Live Aid became a global satellite event with simultaneous concerts in London and Philadelphia. Live Aid was watched by an estimated global audience of one and a half billion viewers and McLuhan’s prophecy of a global theatre was tangibly real.
Live Aid was a technological tour de force with thirteen satellites co-opted to beam images around the world, but even as it was broadcast, technology was changing again. Media was close to the end of one incarnation and close to the beginning of another. It was unknown to most, but the Internet was already a reality at the time of Live Aid. Already used by military and academic organizations, by the end of the 1980s it would be liberated by the work of Tim Berners-Lee at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN). Berners-Lee invented the software protocols of the World Wide Web (WWW) and through this he gave millions access to the Internet and thereby unshackled the whole process of media. The WWW democratized access to the means of production, it democratized access to the means of distribution and it also democratized access to satellites. A digital world began.
Now, already, we have changed again. What once was digital is now just the world, now just the way we do things. That qualifier ‘digital’ has already been assimilated. Those videos, blogs, smartphones, wikis, apps, and the vast topologies of the social networks; they are all just part of how we organize, what we do, who we are, and who we care about.
This dualism between the human and the technological is what Wanda Orlikowski, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), calls 'sociomateriality’. To our grandparents, or our great-grandparents, a refrigerator or television was ‘tech.’ To their grandparents; electricity was unfathomable in its possibilities. Once, all things were new. To us, now, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are ‘tech’. But soon they won’t be. They will be just another part of the material of life. We’ll have utilised them, integrated them and made some sense of them. And we will have changed something of ourselves in that process.