May 7, 2009

Future Proof: From Word of Mouth to the Open Book

We are a talkative species.

If you take a look at the bulk of inventions produced in the last 10,000 years, they fall into four broad swaths - better ways to move things (and ourselves), better ways to protect ourselves, better ways to feed ourselves, and better ways to communicate with one another. Communication with one another is such a strong imperative that one of the harshest punishments that we can inflict on people is to deprive them of that communication - to put them in solitary confinement, to exile them to the wilderness, to "ex-communicate" them. In many primitive cultures, should a person commit manslaughter or some similar crime and get caught, they became "dead" - not killed in retaliation, but made a non-person that others were not permitted to acknowledge or speak to.

Because of that importance, how we communicate is a very significant thread for the future analyst to watch. The predominant communication channels that a culture uses will dictate its organizational structure, more so than any other factor. In hunter-gatherer societies, communication (beyond one-to-one local communication) is typically done communally, within groups. For formal communications - when decisions need to be made, for instance, or in the recitation of (and addition to) a community's memory structure - the role of speaker was typically formalized - the speaker was the one who held a given totem, or given the floor. Communication range was also limited to the speed at which a man or woman could walk or run.

Additionally, these early cultures typically made use of a living long term memory, usually via an oral "song" that kept intact the important stories, historical figures, legends, and constraints of the group. One of the fascinating things that neurologists have recently discovered is that musical memories are stored in a very different way than spoken memories are in the brain, and that such memories are typically retained much longer and with better fidelity (in great part because these memories are actually retained in the hippocampus and cerebrum rather than the cerebellum). Kinesthetic memories similarly tend to be retained far better as well. This may be why most people within these cultures were taught oral history as a combination of chant and dance - the body actually "remembers" this information at a deeper level than it retains speech.

Nomadic cultures made an important discovery - horses not only made for good food, but if you could manage to sneak up on a horse, it was possible to actually ride it. At first such rides were probably just short enough to put a spear in it, but after a while some genius realized that if they could actually control horses, they could go far faster than they could on foot. Beyond the obvious advantages from a food hunting perspective, one additional advantage was that horse-borne messengers could communicate far more effectively with people at greater distances. This made it possible to coordinate actions, and was in fact one of the first instances of hierarchical military structures - a warlord with one force could communicate effectively with additional forces under his captains, who could in turn coordinate their forces with lieutenants.

Agrarian communities developed a somewhat more defensive structure, designed primarily to keep these same nomadic cultures out. but also because the communication requirements of agriculture are broader. Farming is a chancy business - you're forced into defending a turf of land - running away isn't really an option unless you were willing to starve - so you needed to have ways of coordinating the troops (again, a hierarchical structure). However, you also needed to manage inventories, to determine how much of a given crop you needed to replant as seed, to set prices on the grains and other goods, and, ultimately how much to tax people for the services in order to make all of this possible.

As discussed in an earlier column, what this amounted to was the process of shifting abstraction levels. This can be seen in mythology. Tribal mythologies are very animistic - every grove, brook, wind and cave had its attendant spirit, but for the most part, those spirits simply existed - you acknowledged their existence and occasionally bribed them in order to insure success in your ventures, but there was little in the way of hierarchy.

Most agrarian societies, on the other hand, very quickly established hierarchical models - supreme gods, and then secondary and tertiary gods - that reflected the growing power of centralization in human hierarchies. The warlord became the god incarnate, and power became concentrated in bureaucracies - priestly castes, military castes, merchant castes.

It's perhaps not thus surprising that writing only came about with this shift in complexity; tribal societies have no need for writing, but agrarian ones have a large number of such needs. The emergence of writing was a radical change in human society - first because it meant that humans didn't need to expend as much of their thought processes on rote memorization, and likely for the first time could start thinking about information in a way that wasn't tied specifically with a generational oral record.

Indeed, one interesting speculation about this is that "spoken" language may actually only have emerged about the time that writing began, and that most languages prior to that were likely sung rather than spoken. One possible indication of this is to look at those cultures in the last hundred years where there was no formal written language and compare what happens before and after they are exposed to writing. Typically, children from these cultures who are then exposed growing up with writing tend to have far worse rote verbal memorization capability, though they have far better analytic ability.

It's worth noting that reading and writing also cause a significant change in the communication structures of a society. Writing is an asynchronous operation - information placed in writing does not need the speaker of the information - you could write "letters" that allowed (slow) communication between people who were not geographically close.

Additionally, and more subtly, it becomes possible to scan written information in a way that's simply not possible with speech. This in turn let to breaking blocks of narrative into smaller, more digestable portions, a process that almost invariably occurs as new media emerge. The earliest written narratives were literally epic in scale - they represented a story that might be told over several hours in an evening, because they were almost certainly based upon earlier oral stories. However, as writing became more sophisticated, it began to develop a recursive hierarchical structure of its own as people began to master the nuances of committing symbolic representations of meaning to a physical medium.

Most early literate cultures developed a "bible" of some sort, a written work usually attributed to divine provenance, that encoded the mythos (the legends, accepted history, genealogies and so forth) and ethos (the ethical rules or laws of that people that described what was acceptable and unacceptable within the society) of that culture. The Hebrew Torah, the Islamic Talmud, the Christian Old and New Testaments, the Hindu Mahabharita and Ramayana, all of these "books" emerged in cultures that had established active literary traditions, and more had them long enough to accumulate a body of related "subordinate books". Indeed, by some estimates the "Bible" alone represents the political and cultural selection of between 80 and 110 different books, depending upon the particular sub-branch of Christianity or Judaism, with another few dozen books that were in one version or another over the years but have been dropped.

Cultures of the Book illustrate how powerful the advent of writing was. With a single cultural canon, mores and ethics can be established independent of geography. For instance, the Old Testament represents the ethos and history of a desert-based culture. Desert cultures are typified by a nomadic existence, a male-dominated society where women were usually treated as chattel, a strong sense of hierarchy, a low premium placed on the value of human life, and a very competitive warrior ethos. Even the New Testament, which may have been influenced by the Dionysian Mysteries so prevalent in Asia Minor as the time, is still filtered through this desert culture filter.

Yet because of the "authority" that the book has compared to more transient oral traditions, Christianity was carried all the way to the wilds of Northern Europe, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which previously had a forest culture structure - far more gender equality and egalitarianism, strong oral traditions but only very crude literary ones, a far higher sanctity of life, a much stronger clan or family basis, and so on. It's perhaps not surprising that so many of the heresies that the Catholic Church eventually had to stamp out come mostly from the north as a consequence, as there was a certain cultural schizophrenia that occurred as a fairly alien cultural outlook became overlaid upon a very different foundation.

The migration of book production to the north also brought about the next major evolution in communication - the shift from papyrus based scrolls to vellum-based books. Papyrus came from desert reeds, and thus, over time, became increasingly brittle - and usually could support only a minimal amount of pressure before it crumbled - thus papyrus scrolled around two rods, casette-tape style, was the most effective way to store it.

Vellum, on the other hand, was made from lambskin, which was far more plentiful in the north. Because of the curing process, vellum was remarkably resistent to fading or crumbling (indeed, many vellum books survive to the present day in very good condition. However, lambskin was, by its very nature, much more limited in dimension, which eventually led to using vellum leaves that were originally stacked together, then later sewn together, into a new arranged where the content was displayed in pages.

The introduction of new communication channels are quite frequently accompanied by significant upheavals in cultures, especially if the new channels are markedly superior to the old. The first Western printed work was the Gutenberg bible, produced in 1439. Printing was quickly picked up and improved by Italian Aldus Manutius in the mid 1450s, and in England by William Caxton and others in the 1470s.

One of Caxton's most significant innovation was actually a cost-saving measure - rather than a printer using a single folio page for a book (which resulted in very large books), he subdivided the folio page into quartos (quarters), and figured out how to orient the page so that such quartos could be more efficiently printed and bound. This essentially meant that you could produce four times as many "books" with the same effort, and it also represented the shift to the first truly portable book since the innovation of the scroll, which had the effect of lighting a fire under the nascent publishing industry.

This technology change was likely one of the major factors of the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Prior to this period, most bibles were owned only by churches or the very wealthy/powerful. With Caxton books (and a subsequent shift away from expensive vellum to cheaper cloth and wood pulp pages), bibles (and many other books) now moved into the realm of being affordable (albeit still expensive) for the average middle-class burgher or shop-keeper.

Martin Luther's innovation (and its worthwhile understanding that it was an innovation) was to translate the contents of these bibles from Ecclesiastical Latin into contemporary German. This has the immediate effect of letting ordinary people understand and interpret what had been, up until then, what had only been disseminated by priests and clergy. In modern parlance, Luther disintermediated the priests. This had the fairly immediate effect of subverting the legitimacy of the Catholic Church (especially in the North), and the rise of a new class of priesthood who adapted to the new technologies by shifting from the role of arbiters to the role of guides and interpreters.

Of course, the established order did not go quietly into that good night - it seldom does. Once a given communication channel stabilizes, a social order will tend to evolve around that communication channel, to become invested in it. This is especially true in those situations where the communication system is hierarchical and it meshes with a hierarchical mindset. Once you introduce a technology that had previously been available only to the gate keepers to everyone else - whether affordable books in the language that people spoke or low-cost publishing systems that bypass the established news providers, then the value of the existing services plummet, while those that master the production within the new media are able to establish new value measures.

What's more, invariably the first uses of a new medium are to recreate the dominant pattern of the old. The vast majority of all of the new works produced during the mid-15th century were bibles. Of course, this undermined the scriptora throughout Europe - a single bible might take a team of monks the better part of a decade to create, whereas while it may take only a few months to set and print a bible using a press, and once one bible was printed, dozens more could be printed until the first wooden type blocks wore out. Once people began experimenting with molten lead dies, this meant that hundreds of such books could be created.

Yet the real changes - the truly political ones, came as printers began to realize that while the demand for Latin bibles was high, it wasn't infinite, and eventually they began to turn to examine other uses. The translation of bibles into contemporary languages (the vulgate, or common, versions) became an act of defiance of the existing religious establishment - as well as a means of controlling the message by local kings and rulers trying to break the stranglehold that churches had held on their lands for years.

It also meant that other books were soon also published. Histories, books of poetry, philosophical tracts, and similar works emerged around this time, as the medium made such works economical to produce, and in so doing laid the groundwork for the birth of most forms of contemporary literature. In many ways, publishing in the period from 1470 to about the 1530 or so was as dynamic a period of time for innovation as the Internet would be five hundred years later. By the end of this period, the Reformation would be sweeping Northern Europe just as the Renaissance was sweeping southern Europe. The church, seemingly dominant and invincible in 1450, would be torn by strife and dissension as a thousand year old empire disintegrated.

There are a number of lessons to be learned here. Changing communication channels can have huge impacts upon society, something that we're only just really beginning to face today. It is a mistake to see the world of 2020 as being much like today, because the very structures that formed the foundation of the last couple of centuries is now being torn asunder in very much the same way. More on this in the second part of this blog post.

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