I think I’ve mentioned before that I only recently came the realization that the scientific revolution was more a matter of increased communication than necessarily a breakthrough in method. Along the lines of this realization, I have a few thoughts about communication and its effects on human history.
Humans are social animals. Communication between and among us are a vital aspect of the human condition. With each major advance in our ability to communicate, progress on the human condition has accelerated. Each advance, each age of communication, has built on the past advances.
The age of language
The first age of communication began with spoken language. All intelligent social animals, such as chimpanzees, elephants, or dolphins, have culture to one degree or another, but without language, their cultures are far simpler than anything that happens in human societies. Language allows us to communicate the state of our minds with each other, to pass along knowledge, and for societies to organize in larger groups than anything seen in other primates or social animals.
When exactly language began is unknown. Some archaeologists and linguists believe it happened in the relatively recent past around 50,000 years ago or just before the migrations out of Africa, perhaps as a result of some genetic mutation. These scientists point to the sudden appearance in the archaeological record of evidence of behavioral modernity, including symbolic thought in art and refined tools, and posit that language could have been the reason for the change.
However, most scholars and scientists now believe that language developed gradually over time, starting perhaps with the alarm signals and calls made by many primates. It now appears that Neanderthals had the required physiological adaptations for speech, putting the development of such adaptations, and possibly of language, before our evolutionary lines separated hundreds of thousands of years ago. Although, if we could hear it, we would probably regard the early language of Homo heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, as more proto-language than language itself.
Whenever language did start, it’s an attribute that every human society possesses, no matter how primitive that society. Along with other cultural universals such as art, religion, music, and cooking, it is a significant attribute that separates us from other animals. Indeed, it may be necessary for some or all of the other attributes to exist. There’s no doubt that language has given humans a major evolutionary advantage over other species.
The age of writing
The second age of communication began with writing. The earliest known writing may turn out to be symbols found in paleolithic art dating back tens of thousands of years, although whether or not these early symbols communicate information in the manner usually ascribed to writing remains speculative.
The earliest writing is usually said to be in Mesopotamia during the period from 3500-3100 B.C., although long before true writing appeared, pictograms and numeric notations were in use in both Mesopotamia, Egypt, and other regions. Indeed, the first writing appears to have been motivated to keep tax records and other mundane tasks. The first historical or mythological narratives didn’t appear for several centuries afterward.
Writing in these early centuries was difficult, both to do and to learn, with reading and writing usually left to a class of scribes. Still, writing enabled the formation of the first civilizations, kingdoms, and empires.
The second age of writing
I think what I’m calling the second age of writing began with the development of the Canaanite and Phonetic alphabet in the later 2nd millennium and early first millennium B.C. These alphabets probably made reading and writing easier. The Phoenecia trading expeditions carried the Phonetic alphabet far and wide. The influence of these alphabets also spread and influenced writing systems throughout the Mediterranean and southern Asia.
It’s probably no coincidence that the centuries after the spread of this alphabet, from roughly 800 B.C. to 300 B.C., became a period that some scholars now refer to as the Axial Age, the period where much of the philosophical and spiritual foundations of modern civilization were established. Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy, and many other intellectual and spiritual movements began during this time.
History is usually said to have begun with written records around 3000 B.C., but our knowledge of these early times (3000-500 B.C.) is sketchy and often based more on archaeology than on the skimpy historical narratives from then. The actual field of history begins in the fifth century B.C, with Herodotus and especially Thucydides. From this period forward, our knowledge of events, at least in literate societies, becomes progressively more detailed.
The Axial Age is a controversial concept, but to whatever extent it was a pivotal age, it was probably due to the spread of writing throughout the ancient world, for the first time enabling the thoughts of prophets, philosophers, and other thinkers to be recorded for the ages. Many of the most sacred scriptures, and the most influential philosophical treatises, date from this period.
The age of print
Writing enabled the detailed thoughts of previous times to be preserved accurately for future generations. Scholars of one generation could read the thoughts of scholars of previous generations and build on their ideas. Progress in human thought could be made. But reading the work of previous scholars was not easy. It was often necessary to visit libraries, monasteries, or other centers of learning in order to read that writing.
This was because every manuscript had to be laboriously copied by hand, making manuscripts very expensive and of widely varying accuracy and quality. The transmission of ideas was slow and uncertain.
Then, in the 15th century, a German blacksmith and goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented the most pivotal technology of the second millenium, the printing press. Suddenly manuscripts could be copied on a mass scale, with greater accuracy, speed, and with far less labor. The rate at which ideas could be shared, debated, and built upon increased dramatically.
It’s no coincidence that, in the centuries after the printing revolution, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the European Age of Discovery all took place. The modern world was forged in the aftermath of the printing revolution.
The age of the internet
The internet is the culmination of many different technologies, from computing which has roots in the 19th century with Charles Babbage‘s analytical engine, to electronics and both wired and wireless communications. As a computer nerd in the early 80s, I participated in network services like Compuserve and BBSs (bulletin board systems), but those were isolated toy-like pockets of connectivity compared to the distributed network of networks that is the modern internet.
Those of us old enough to remember the world prior to the internet can see the profound effect it has already had on society, and that it is continuing to have. The world today is more connected than ever. The fact that you are reading this blog post, probably within a few hours of it being published, likely in a different region of the world from the author, speaks to the ease and speed of modern communications and collaboration.
As profound as the change has been so far, the history of the previous ages of communication show that this is most likely only the beginning, that we are just laying the foundations of this new age. What new intellectual movements will be begun as a result of this new medium of communication? What ancient philosophies will be altered, dispensed with, or enhanced? How different will humanity be after a couple of centuries in this new age of communication?
Only time will tell. Our perspective at this point may be far too limited to make any prediction that will be anything but amusing to future generations.
11 thoughts on “The ages of communication”
I started reading this last night, but didn’t get to the good stuff until after reading your piece here this morning(which I thoroughly enjoyed btw). It’s Robert Bellah on his book ‘Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age’. While I almost didn’t get past his trashing of Wright, Wade, Boyer, and Atran I found it an interesting read especially when he gets to discussing Donald Merlin’s concept of “mimetic culture”:
‘Where did religion come from?’, Bellah 2011
The 2nd half is the meat beginning with:
“So let me just list some of my theoretical frameworks …”
Oops! That’s actually “Merlin Donald” rather than the reverse and his “mimetic culture” is the connection to your piece here on the history of communication 🙂
Thanks, and interesting link. I’m definitely going to have to finish it tonight. I keep coming back to Bellah, and would have read his book long ago if it didn’t feel like it was going to be an enormous amount of work.
Same here – hoping if I read enough *about* it maybe I won’t have to actually read it. Then again, I’ve not read much on religion from a sociological perspective and it sounds like maybe a good one to read if you’re only going to read one – I don’t know.
It doesn’t look like it’s a hopelessly dense scholarly work, but it does seem denser than the works of the authors he disparages. I didn’t realize until today that he died last year, so this book will stand as his final statement on the subject. (Unless someone discovers a draft manuscript somewhere.)
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Do you regard the age of the television as significant? The 20th century saw a number of mass communication tools (telephone, fax, etc) that also helped to forge the way we see the world and our knowledge of it and each other. News reporting has surely had a major impact on how wars are fought and countries organise themselves politically.
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Excellent point. What I call the internet age is really the age of rapid technological communication, of which the internet is the latest accomplishment. But the fact that you and I are interacting while on different continents strikes me as a unique accomplishment of the internet. Twenty years ago, we might have watched the same shows or read the same books, but us discussing it would have been unlikely. But there’s no doubt that mass media changed the world in a major way.
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I think another moment to mention is the changeover from having writing to trusting writing. Plato’s Phaedrus comes to mind as a place too see the fears that people held about the written word (and the mores for Plato’s relationship to the totally oral/aural Socrates), namely that it would disconnect us from each other, from our memories, and ultimately from truth.
Same thing people say about computers and mobile phones!
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Wow, I don’t think I ever knew about that. But it makes sense if you think about it.
Also, wonderful piece, and one that I’ll probably return to more than a few times!