How is the modern world different from previous periods of history and why did it come into existence when and where it did?
Megan Cui, Phillips Andover Academy, United States
Joint Third Place for the 2020 History Prize | 8.5 min read
Transport yourself to the moment when you open your eyes every morning. Think carefully about what your first impulse is. Perhaps your first thought is something along the lines of: what’s going on? Or, perhaps more accurately: what have I missed? And you reach for your phone to find out. You’re not alone; 80% of people check their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up each morning and a whopping one quarter of people check it within the first minute! It is precisely this shared impulse that defines us as members of a modern society.
It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific period in history when the world transitioned into modernity because there isn’t one. Instead, the key to what engendered the modern world existed within the minds of an uncountable number of individuals. Most people might indicate a major technological shift, like the Industrial Revolution, when seeking the start of the modern era. Technology did in fact play a tremendous role in ushering in the modern age, but it was not the only factor. It was the urge of people to become part of something greater, in tandem with technological growth, which is closer to the truth. The technological development in question is the advent of media via the printing press, leading to mass media with the transistor radio, the telephone, the television, the internet, and the smartphone. As national consciousness grew among the occupants of the world’s fledgling nations, so too did the demand for faster, more comprehensive media to sustain the common need to become part of an imagined community. Regardless of the time period, whenever national consciousness awoke in large part due to a sophisticated media system, modernity was being formed. In short, historically, modern is media.
The philosophical underpinnings of this thesis lie with Benedict Anderson and his book, Imagined Communities. The central idea is that modernity and nation-building went hand in hand. Although we could therefore pin the answer to the question during the era of the nation-state, it would be a disservice to the sociological and psychological developments taking place in the mind, where modernity truly resides. Due to the proliferation of print media (in the form of newspapers and novels) the very concept of time was forever altered, laying the foundation for the nation to emerge. A person in a pre-modern society believed they were living in a flat timeline, forever in the “end times” approaching the apocalypse. This is why the Catholic Church held such sway over most of Europe—they dictated how time was experienced. People would have rarely left their individual communities, farms, and congregations. They wouldn't have thought of themselves as “Frenchmen” but rather something much more mundane like “Jacques from up the bend.” They certainly wouldn’t care what Marguerite from the coast of Nice was up to and probably couldn’t even conceive of the lived experience of Li Wei from Shanghai.
Print media changed that forever. For the first time, Jacques could read a newspaper about “new” things occurring that were important to know. Experiences from around the country and the world filled in the mental map Jacques had of the world, broadening his scope but at the same time planting him firmly in France. Things presented in the newspaper became legitimate because of the fact that they were publicized for all to read. Newspapers helped shape public opinion of the members of a nation, suppressing dissenting views and shaping what it meant to think like a Frenchman, Chinese, American, etc. If something was done “for the people” like the creation of public education or even starting a war, modern listeners would readily accept it. More intimately, people gained the sense of intersubjectivity—that they could share an experience with another member of their nation that they will never even meet. This idea can be illustrated best with letter writing (or text messaging today) because in order to rationally write a letter and expect a reply, one had to assume there would be another person doing the same thing, living a life very similar to theirs. People began to care about other “selves” in the world. By reading novels they could get into the minds of characters from their own nation, from other nations, other genders, ages, and on. By spending leisure time at the cafe, they could interact with other selves by discussing the news of the day.
A modern nation is only possible because of this imagined community, a sense of shared stuff that all people from that nation possess. As states became modern, they adopted a national flag, a clearly defined border, and a shared history that included all people for the first time. National identities were constructed around a “bricolage” of things that were already present in society and this was presented by the media as the type of person to emulate. As Michael Kim lays out, this is how Koreans envisioned themselves as more than just a subset of China (as the old Yangban elites might have preferred) to a new national Korean people, putting Korea as the new center rather than accepting China’s status as the “middle country”. Koreans at the dawn of modernity had to collectively agree that all other Koreans eat kimchi, write in hangul, speak a certain dialect, and live specific cultural patterns based on their particular bricolage and what was carried over the airwaves from Seoul-based radio stations. In fact, television and radio were heavily responsible for destroying regional dialects and cultures to promote a kind of national mono-culture. Even though those regional accents and proclivities may still exist in the world today, by just following the media one might never know it. According to structuralism, a speech act performed by the media could implant an idea in the minds of consumers. If an American is supposed to fear Mexicans, the president might go on television and say, “Mexicans are dangerous” and make it so. The disparity of power the media has on the minds of citizens can be compared to the power differential between a preacher at a mega-church and a homeless preacher on the sidewalk. Their power rests in the size of their audience, not in what they say.
The cultural pattern is worth delving further into because the media greatly shaped the ways that early modern people lived their lives, creating a human that might even be recognizable today as “modern”. By imagining that everyone else in one’s nation is doing the same thing, it encourages conformity and senses of security and belonging by doing those things. In the mornings, an early modern person would go buy their daily newspaper driven by the same impulse that compels you to reach for your phone upon waking. By reading the news, they would know what to talk about during the coffee break at their job. It’s worth considering why they are even taking a break at all, (because it’s permissible, because their peers do, because there’s time), and why coffee is the beverage of choice, (because it’s advertised everywhere in the paper and regaled as the popular thing to drink, of course). The adoption of cultural patterns lead to a convergence towards a uniform national identity, even in mundane matters like the beverage one drinks. Years ago in America there were so many regional tonics and elixirs like cronk sarsaparilla—which was touted in local newspapers as “the drink”—but in modern America, there’s really only Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Modernity, propelled by the media and implanted into the minds of citizens, leads to a great convergence. We can say the world is recognizably “modern” because it looks the same everywhere. In the modern world, there is only one “civilization” that each nation must conform to. This concept seems to justify imperialism since if a place exists without the civilization that one’s nation enjoys, it would only be right for a modern citizen to support spreading their modern civilization “over there”. Thus, imperialism acted as a method to spread modernity worldwide and shape all parts of the world into a uni-form, recognizable to all. Before modernity, the world must have been so much more incredibly diverse than we can possibly imagine today. Essentially, the world took after Europe since European powers were responsible for conquering most of it, (with Japan joining in on the trend towards the end).
As media continues to develop, so too does the individuality we regard as essential today. As the world becomes more connected due to technology, we become more sure of our sovereignty. Media helped change the narrative on sovereignty, shifting it from the monarch towards the individual, sanctifying individual rights such as free speech—or the right to put your pen to paper or your finger to the touchscreen and write as you please to a friend. Through the media, people learn the symbolic representations of what it means to be modern such as how to dress, what to buy, how to speak and so on. Modernity becomes a “package deal” that must be consumed like any other commodity. In fact, our identities have become so intertwined with commodities that even personal information can be bought and sold. Essentially, the true aim of mass media is to remove barriers of communication and deterritorialize people in the service of consumption to fuel the modern nation state. This may always have been the aim of media and modernity in general—to individualize people and thus make them easier to control. Eventually, modern people transform the technologies designed to govern them such as mass media, a unified time zone, and schedules into tools to dominate the self on behalf of the state. Remember reaching for your phone after waking up? Just why did you wake up when you did? You woke up because of the alarm you had set for yourself to get up and go to work for the nation state.
Modernity may still be an unfinished project, but its origin is firmly rooted in the development of media and lies not in anything physical but within the minds of individuals. Modernity happened and is happening whenever and wherever in the world things are being “civilized” through a process of standardization informed by mass media. Our system of dates and understanding of history cannot pin an exact time for modernity’s origin because that system is an illusion that never occured the way we think it did. In a pre-modern viewpoint, we could still simply be living day by day, connected merely to those in our inner circle—but we believe ourselves to be part of something much bigger. People have irrevocably changed due to modernity into “individuals” who resemble one another much more closely than pre-modern persons ever did. Perhaps as new media continues to develop, imagined communities will crop up around commonalities that are not tied to any nation-state, altering history once again. People head to online mass media to find their imagined communities, whether it is a livestream of a new video game, a popular discussion forum on reddit, a fandom of personality-driven cooking shows on Youtube, or the thrill of enlisting in the BTS K-Pop army alongside similar individuals with that same niche interest, to which members might claim stronger allegiance than their own nation state!
1 Pinkman,“80% Of Smartphone Users Check Their Phones Before Brushing Their Teeth ... And Other Hot Topics.” The New York Post goes further, claiming Americans check their phones 80 times per day.
2 Let’s say the 19th Century.
3 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen.
4 This shared history always purports that the nation had existed in some form in ancient times, even in instances when the actual creation of the nation was much more recent than commonly thought, like with the modern iteration of Italy, founded in 1861 and the PRC in 1949.
5 Not to mention brought in by the boatload from a tropical nation thanks to modern trade routes.
6 The Guardian, “Cronk Rules Everything Around Me”
Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, 1982.
Cecco, Leyland. “'Cronk Rules Everything around Me': Long-Lost Beverage Resurrected after 120 Years.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 July 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/03/dr-cronk-drink-canada-brewery.
Habermas Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991.
Kim, Michael. “Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Transnationalism in Korean History.” The Routledge Handbook of Korean Culture and Society, by Youna Kim, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017, pp. 15–34.
Kim, Michael. “The Colonial Public Sphere and the Discursive Mechanism of Mindo.” Mass Dictatorship and Modernity, 2013, pp. 178–202., doi:10.1057/9781137304339_10.
Kim, Michael. “Nation-Building and Development as Ideology and Practice.” The Palgrave Handbook of Mass Dictatorship, 2016, pp. 51–65., doi:10.1057/978-1-137-43763-1_5.
Pinkham, Ryan“80% Of Smartphone Users Check Their Phones Before Brushing Their Teeth ... And Other Hot Topics.” Constant Contact, 15 Dec. 2014, blogs.constantcontact.com/smartphone-usage-statistics/#:~:text=How%20about%20check%20yo ur%20phone,of%20waking%20up%20each%20morning.
Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: the Modernization of Rural France: 1870-1914. Stanford University Press, 1976.