Michael McGee, Ph.D., Hardaye Ramsaroop-Hansen, Ed.D.
First published June 2018
Most reasonable people believe that advancing communication technologies benefit society, economize on
material, time, and human resources, and improve public health. However, some critics purport that innovation
disrupts the social order and degrades public health by producing anxiety among the population. Early sociologist
William Ogburn suggested that maladjustments occur in societies in which technological innovations outpace
people‘s capacity to understand and integrate them into daily life. He termed this concept ―cultural lag‖ (Ogburn,
1922). Ogburn argued that an innovation in one part of society creates the need for adjustment in another part of
society. This paper examines communication technologies‘ role in cultural lag and in turn, its net effect on
society‘s health over time, and the dynamics leading to their acceptance.
Movable Type Printing Press
In 1452 Gutenberg‘s innovation of the printing press made The Bible available to the masses. It was later used to
mass-produce papal indulgence certificates which were sold to believers to reduce the amount of time their souls
might spend in purgatory after death (Karolides, Bald & Sova, 1999). In part, the sale of printed indulgences
triggered Martin Luther to initiate the Protestant Reformation of 1517 (Eisenstein, 1979). In the process of
publishing the pamphlet, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in the common German
vernacular, Luther became the first best-selling author (Dittmar, 2011). Some of Luther‘s other publications
recommended the use of apothecaries, barbers, physicians, and nurses to cure physical ailments, and influenced
how the public viewed physicians by emphasizing that most diseases could be traced to natural explanations and
were not always caused by black magic and Satan (Elmer, 2004).
By 1500 an estimated 13 million books were in circulation among the European population of 100 million people
(Briggs & Burke, 2010). Medical texts were used by European healers to treat a variety of illnesses, from gastric
problems to syphilis. Social critics of that time were concerned that mass-produced books printed in the common
vernacular allowed ordinary folk access to knowledge previously held by clergy and the ruling class, in turn
disrupting the social order (Zaret, 2000).
In 1641 Samuel Hartlib, an Eastern European exile in Britain, warned, ―the art of printing will so spread
knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of
oppression‖ (Briggs & Burke, 2011, p. 15).
Postman suggested that the movable printing press led to the separation of young people into a distinct class
(1992).Before widespread literacy, young people grew up learning through the spoken word and by observing
adults. After the printing press, young people were schooled to read—often in groups of ages 7 to 13. Social class
schooling became a way to educate youth. Postman argued that, ―With the establishment of schools, it was
inevitable that the young would come to be viewed as a special class of people whose mind and character were
qualitatively different from adults‖ (Postman, 1992, p. 153). By the end of the 17th century, mass-produced and
economically printed books had profoundly altered the European social order and the health of literate people.
By the mid-nineteenth century, photography added a new diagnostic dimension to medical praxis and knowledge.
O‘Connor (1995) asserted, ―As both diagnostic aid and documentary device, the photograph was seen as
depicting pure data; it seemed to perfect medicine’s emphasis on seeing, and so represented the ultimate form of
scientific knowledge‖ (p. 546). Early proponents suggested that photography was not being deployed fast enough
for the medical or health professions, as in this quote from the British medical journal, Lancet, in 1859: ―We
were, therefore, surprised, in passing through the rooms of the Photographic Society lately, to find so few
photographs which had any bearing of what kind soever upon surgery, medicine, and the allied sciences. It is
much to be regretted that the great resources of the photographic art — seen here in a hundred beautiful forms —
have not yet been fully applied to the purposes of our art‖ (as cited in O‘Connor, 1999).