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How Communication Technology Drives Civilization's Changing Ideals
by William McGaughey
Historical knowledge depends on knowing what people have done who are be available for immediate questioning. Such knowledge, in turn, depends upon cultural inventions which preserve the record of past experience.
In some cases, there may be direct contact with the remains of past societies. Archeology deals with the prehistoric record created from cultural artifacts. If we find human bones at an excavated site, we infer past human activities, taking clues from the condition and position of the bones. Pieces of pottery, chipped stones, and jewelry may suggest tools or ornamental objects. The archeologist observes these things and, from them, surmises past human behavior. Such knowledge, based on external observation, is unable to penetrate or recreate the world of the human mind.
A cultural invention which gives access to the mind's interior thinking is spoken language. When a person speaks, we know what he is thinking. However, spoken words physically disappear in the moment that they are spoken. They leave a residue in the memory of persons who have heard the speech. Therefore, our knowledge of events in long-lost societies is usually quite weak. Those who might personally have witnessed the events have themselves disappeared from the scene. Whatever memories remain are based on oral communications passed along from one generation to the next.
Written language makes history possible in a real sense. Writing symbolizes spoken communications in a visual way. It has the ability to create a record of thoughts communicated from one person to another. Written language gives a picture of mind's interior experience. It creates a record of the experience to the extent that its expressions have been preserved in a durable medium. It thereby allows historical knowledge to break free of personal memories preserved through unbroken conversations between the generations.
For writing to preserve knowledge, two conditions must be met: First, its expressions must be physically preserved so as to be available for examination in present times. Second, contemporary scholars must know the meaning of the written symbols. The first requirement takes into consideration the durability of the expressive medium. Over many centuries, stone inscriptions have endured while writings on papyrus have disintegrated. The quantity of writings available for present-day inspection also affects historical knowledge. The second requirement concerns humanity's ability to decipher ancient writings. Unless linguistic scholars have deciphered the particular symbols, their message will remain unknown.
Even so, there is still a void in our knowledge of past events which written language cannot fill. That is the sensory aspect of experience. It is not just the words a person speaks but also his physical manner and presence which creates the full communicative experience. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and other aspects of body language contribute to our comprehension of a message delivered through speech. When one considers how a baby learns speech from his parents, one sees how important this aspect is to communication.
Until lately, it was not possible to record the sensory experience associated with historical events. Then, starting in the mid 19th century, a series of cultural inventions came along which preserved the sights and sounds associated with a scene. Such inventions included photography, phonograph recordings, cinematography, and related technologies. Suddenly it became possible to hear the sound of spoken words years after the fact. With that new capability, one gained a new sense of the speaker's personality. When audial and visual recordings were combined, it was almost like being physically present during a communication.
Different periods of history
In a broad sense, we can relate historical knowledge to three periods distinguished by their respective technologies of communication. The first period would include societies whose experiences in their interior dimension are unknown because the societies lacked written records. Clearly, that all societies prior to writing's invention in the 4th millennium B.C. belonged to this category. The second period includes societies whose inhabitants communicated through writing but lacked the means of recording sensory events. All literate societies prior to the 19th century A.D. fell into this category. The third period is marked by societies which had both written language and electronic recording devices, namely those in the late 19th century through the 21st century.
Closer study reveals that the second period of history - literate but not yet electronic - can be further divided into three parts. The type of writing that was first developed in Mesopotamia is called ideographic because each written symbol stands for an idea corresponding to a spoken word. Such a script requires thousands of symbols to represent all the words. In the late 2nd millennium B.C., literate societies in the Middle East developed a simplified system of writing whose symbols corresponded to the elemental sounds of speech. This was alphabetic writing. Written words were aggregates of sound-based letters. Finally, in the mid 15th century A.D., Johannes Gutenberg perfected a technique of printing with movable type. This invention, which originated in the Far East, allowed written communications to be mass produced, improving quality and lowering costs. An age of printed literature followed.
Ideographic writing rescued spoken knowledge from oblivion. What did the alphabet contribute? First, the simplified means of representing spoken words made it easier to learn writing. That meant that more people were able to master the technique. Where writing skills were once limited to writing specialists called scribes, now many people had them. A reading public was created. Second, writing was adapted more easily to the changing forms of speech. As Latin broke down into the modern European languages, written forms of these languages developed. In contrast, written Chinese, which has remained at a prealphabetic stage, has remained in a stable form for many centuries. That allowed literate persons in many parts of China, who spoke in regional dialects, to understand each other's writing. Literacy thus fostered a national culture.
Printing multiplied the quantity of writings that were produced. More evidence from the past has therefore remained for historians to collect and evaluate. On the other hand, paper tends to disintegrate more quickly than, say, cuneiform inscriptions in baked clay. Printed literature is generally of a higher quality (in terms of accuracy and care) than handwritten manuscripts. The letters are produced in a perfected style. Printers give greater attention to proof-reading texts. Such improvements allay the concern which historians have had in working with corrupted texts from the manuscript culture.
Impact on Ideals and Values
The ultimate challenge of history is to discover a people's inner purpose expressed in terms of ideals. To an extent, however, a society's ideals flow from the medium by which its thoughts are expressed. Changes in the mode of communication therefore affect its content. A society which communicates primarily through handwritten correspondence will have different values than one based on printed literature. A literate society will have different values than one whose principal mode of communication is electronic broadcasting.
Let us consider how changing communication technologies have influenced values and ideals in three types of society: (1) societies with written language expressed in handwritten manuscripts, (2) societies with printed literature, and (3) societies with technologies of electronic recording and broadcasting as well as writing.
It seems that durability is an important theme in societies which have recently acquired writing. Scholars want to preserve the knowledge which has been gathered from the oral culture. Priests want to preserve the magical formulae and ritualistic prayers that influence the spirit world. Merchants want to preserve the record of commercial transactions which document ownership and exchange. Medical practitioners want to remember minerals and herbs which cure illnesses. The point is not to exhibit writing skills but put knowledge in a form where it can be retrieved by others. As long as someone has discovered the principles of knowledge and expressed them in a clear and durable form, humanity will possess the knowledge.
The Greek philosophers carried this process a step further. Pre-Socratic thinkers searched for a substance common to all physical objects. Socrates, in contrast, began to probe the nature of words. What is justice? What is courage? In other words, what type of behavior is common to all instances of justice but is lacking in things that are not justice? Socrates sought the proper definition of words. Ultimately, Plato, who was Socrates' disciple and biographer, directed attention to the nature of words themselves. What type of being did a word such as justice have? A word is a generality, not a physical object. A word, in its essential meaning, lasts forever. It is an eternal entity pervading the physical universe.
In the days of Socrates and Plato, Greek culture was not far from its oral roots. Homeric verse was its common currency. At the same time, literacy was spreading as the Greek alphabet assumed a standard form. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that philosophers would inquire into the nature of words. Unlike the fleeting sounds which represented speech, words written on paper or carved in stone could be examined at one's leisure. So it was an easy jump from the study of physical objects to the study of written words. And, once philosophy had established that words had an independent and real existence as eternal being, it was credible that a Heaven existed to house human souls. Belief in Heaven and Hell proved to be powerful concepts in the religious cultures that ensued.
Christian unity was fractured in Europe around the time that Gutenberg produced the first printed Bibles. Seemingly a paradox, this weakening of church authority is associated with the Protestant challenge begun by Martin Luther. Its power lay in the fact that each worshiper could read the Bible himself and reach his own conclusions. Two events converged to make this possible: transactions of the Bible into modern European languages and printing's ability to produce Bibles that everyman could afford. The existence of cheap books also promoted other kinds of learning. As newspapers replaced handwritten correspondence in describing public events, the age of mass communications was born.
Printing was not a force for stability of knowledge. On the contrary, as an instrument to disseminate knowledge more widely, it contributed to the quick replacement of one belief with another as new discoveries were made in science. Also, because printing allowed a particular set of words to be communicated to readers exactly as written, it promoted an interest in an author's style of writing. The reader could admire the artistry of expression - never mind whether the author's sentiments were true.
The heroes of this culture were, therefore, not philosophers and theologians, but persons able to create beautiful works of art, whether with words, musical notations, or dabs of paint. The creative artist came to be regarded as a uniquely inspired genius. Secular education set such persons up as exemplars of national cultures. Such culture would not have been possible, however, had not print technology allowed an author's exact words to be expressed in a reliable structure.
Now popular culture has moved on to electronic communication. What ideals have emerged from this type of culture? Of course, each cultural expression can be judged by its truth content. Of course, it takes expert camerawork, production, and script-writing to produce a successful film. But the Shakespeares and Platos who serve today's entertainment industry are not appreciated as much as the performers. These are the "stars": the actors and actresses appearing in popular films, the singers who record hit songs, the professional athletes who triumph in televised games. The cerebral aspect of these productions plays second fiddle to the raw, sensual appeal of the performer whose personal image is broadcast to a mass audience.
Again, we see that the nature of the technology dictates the ideal emphasized in the culture. Sound recordings pick up, preserve, and disseminate the exact sound of a singer's voice; and that is what contemporary audiences want. Motion pictures, videotapes, and television broadcasting make it possible for millions of viewers to see and hear performers exhibit their unique personalities as they participate in dramatic productions. The audiences are attracted to the personalities of these stars; it is what makes or breaks a commercial film. The sensual aspect of that experience overshadows its artistry of design. Now that electronic machines can deliver the sensual part of human personality, the culture based upon it naturally prevails.
If world history is divided into epochs characterized by their dominant communication technologies, historians can tell the story of civilized societies in terms of changing ideals related to their modes of expression. This type of history will be intellectually richer and closer to popular experience than one based on kings and queens, wars, inventions, and architectural treasures.