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Effective Communication

All animal species have perfected a system of communication, but humans are the only species capable of spoken language. Effective communication is essential for a variety of reasons. It serves to inform, motivate, establish authority and control, and allows for emotive expression. For humans in particular, communication is also vital for creating a sense of social cohesion. Just as mankind has evolved over the centuries, our means of communication have followed suit.

Communication has existed in various forms since man appeared on Earth. The methods, however, consisted of a disorganized set of signs that could have different meanings to each human using them. It wasn't until three million years after man's debut, around the year 30,000 B.C.E, that communication began to take on an intentional, manufactured format.

Other forms of early communication existed, although they were less popular for a variety of reasons. Story telling was used to pass on important information in the days before the existence of the written word. However, since man still lived in separate tribes, this information could not be applied outside one's own tribal community. Drums and smoke signals were also used by primitive man, but were not the most practical means of communicating. Both methods could attract unwanted attention from enemy tribes and predatory animals. These methods were also difficult to standardize.

Smoke signals are one of the oldest forms of communications. Soldiers guarding the great wall in ancient China used smoke signals to alert one another to the approach of an enemy. Greeks devised a very complicated system involving an entire alphabet of smoke signals used around 150 BC. The Greeks used torches. While most people in recent times think of smoke signals as being bound to a specific location where a large fire has been built these methods of carrying small combustible, but long burning materials meant the signals could be sent at anytime from anywhere. In fact, some tribes of Native Americans used this mobility as part of the signal itself. For example, signals from midway up a hill could indicate safety, while signals from the top meant danger.

Explorers fearfully making their way through a jungle would hear the drums pick up tempo and volume, and they knew they were in deep trouble. Far from being a source of terror the drums in the jungles of Africa or Asia were really more the equivalent of the local news. In fact, drums were a simply method of communications across distances since tempo and volume could be used much the same way as Morse code.

What began as primitive cave paintings has morphed into an endless variety of ways to express oneself to other humans. The earliest of this type of writings were believed to have been used since pre-historic times to tell stories, warn of danger, claim territories, and even to mark mass grave sites. The pictures were usually crude and created to look like a physical object. These symbols were employed at first to represent physical items, but later developed into ideograms, which could represent ideas. From early cave drawings to the detailed artistry of Chinese calligraphy this type of writing has developed into a complex and beautiful art form still practiced in some cultures.

Writing is a system of linguistic symbols which permit one to transmit and conserve information. Writing appears to have developed between the 7th millennium BC and the 4th millennium BC, first in the form of early mnemonic symbols which became a system of ideograms or pictographs through simplification. The oldest known forms of writing were thus primarily logographic in nature. Later syllabic and alphabetic (or segmental) writing emerged.

Silk, in China, was also a base for writing. Writing was done with brushes. Many other materials were used as bases: bone, bronze, pottery, shell, etc. In India, for example, dried palm tree leaves were used; in Mesoamerica another type of plant, Amate. Any material which will hold and transmit text is a candidate for use in bookmaking. The book is also linked to the desire of humans to create lasting records. Stones could be the most ancient form of writing, but wood would be the first medium to take the guise of a book. The words biblos and liber first meant "fibre inside of a tree". In Chinese, the character that means book is an image of a tablet of bamboo. Wooden tablets (Rongorongo) were also made on Easter Island.

A great deal of knowledge that mankind guarded for centuries disappeared without a trace. Great people of human race either kept their thoughts and achievements for themselves or carried them in their graves, and the ones that for a change wrote all of that down weren't lucky- There was some smart guy that burnt it all down during the war or a revolution, or maybe those thoughts are still here, but well hidden. Obviously, we'll never know what great books and writings are lost through time, but we know something about some, although the facts that surround their disappearance are defeating.

The authors of Antiquity had no rights concerning their published works; there were neither authors' nor publishing rights. Anyone could have a text recopied, and even alter its contents. Scribes earned money and authors earned mostly glory, unless a patron provided cash; a book made its author famous. This followed the traditional conception of the culture: an author stuck to several models, which he imitated and attempted to improve. The status of the author was not regarded as absolutely personal.

From a political and religious point of view, books were censored very early: the works of Protagoras were burned because he was a proponent of agnosticism and argued that one could not know whether or not the gods existed. Generally, cultural conflicts led to important periods of book destruction: in 303, the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of Christian texts. Some Christians later burned libraries, and especially heretical or non-canonical Christian texts. These practices are found throughout human history but have ended in many nations today. A few nations today still greatly censor and even burn books.

But there also exists a less visible but nonetheless effective form of censorship when books are reserved for the elite; the book was not originally a medium for expressive liberty. It may serve to confirm the values of a political system, as during the reign of the emperor Augustus, who skillfully surrounded himself with great authors. This is a good ancient example of the control of the media by a political power. More importantly, private censorship of books has occurred and continues today. What books one chooses to privately read, to destroy, to throw away, to not sell, and what to pass along to their children involves choosing some books over others. Private individuals can and do censor themselves and others, with little or no support and approval from the governing bodies of their time.

Little information concerning books in Ancient Greece survives. Several vases (6th century BC and 5th century BC) bear images of volumina. There was undoubtedly no extensive trade in books, but there existed several sites devoted to the sale of books. The spread of books, and attention to their cataloging and conservation, as well as literary criticism developed during the Hellenistic period with the creation of large libraries in response to the desire for knowledge exemplified by Aristotle. Book production developed in Rome in the 1st century BC with Latin literature that had been influenced by the Greek.

This diffusion primarily concerned circles of literary individuals. Atticus was the editor of his friend Cicero. However, the book business progressively extended itself through the Roman Empire; for example, there were bookstores in Lyon. The spread of the book was aided by the extension of the Empire, which implied the imposition of the Latin tongue on a great number of people (in Spain, Africa, etc.).

Libraries were private or created at the behest of an individual. Julius Caesar, for example, wanted to establish one in Rome, proving that libraries were signs of political prestige. In the year 377, there were 28 libraries in Rome, and it is known that there were many smaller libraries in other cities. Despite the great distribution of books, scientists do not have a complete picture as to the literary scene in antiquity as thousands of books have been lost through time.

Communication plays an important part in any revolution, and the gradual changes in communications technology have played an important role in changing the way revolutions occur -" just as they have changed lives in general. Recently, there has been a lot of chatter about the impact of new media on events across the Middle East and North Africa. There seems no doubt that they have been important, just as Al Jazeera provides a new source of information, delivered in an established way, TV.

Sometimes communications fail, and in the absence of reliable information, rumours fester. During the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the rebels seized the General Post Office (where else?) north of the river, but the British forces held the bridges across the Liffey, as well as Trinity College, in central Dublin. The rebels and government forces disabled the post, telegrams and phones in Dublin, but a city is too large and complex an organism to survive for long without effective communication.

New media played a role in the Protestant Reformation too. In 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and an academic at the local university, nailed 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, criticising various practices of the Catholic Church. The 'theses' were academic debating points, and Luther anticipated an academic debate. He wasn't the first scholar to criticize the Church, but what made things different from earlier reformers was Gutenberg's invention of moveable type. (Or rather, reinvention; the Chinese got there independently much earlier.)

Faster communication was key. Once Luther's original words were printed and distributed, the criticisms of the established order spread faster than ever before possible: within a week they were all over Germany, within a month all over Europe. Once out there, these ideas generated other ideas, which multiplied and fragmented and took on new and different forms -" and generated equally proliferating reactions as well.

In 16th century terms, printing allowed ideas to spread faster than ever -" across Europe in a month! In the 18th century, the ideas of the French Revolution crossed Europe within days, along established postal routes or by carrier pigeon. But we still face the same problem of separating ideas from rumours, and dealing with the proliferation and fragmentation of ideas. We can certainly communicate faster than ever before. But I suspect we still process that information at much the same speed as we did 500 years ago.

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself. In parallel with modern concerns about children's overuse of technology, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." He also advised that children can't distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not "improper" tales, lest their development go astray. The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since: The older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the "wholesome" media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced.

Gessner's anxieties over psychological strain arose when he set about the task of compiling an index of every available book in the 16th century, eventually published as the Bibliotheca universalis. Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools "exhaust the children's brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment." Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.

When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome. In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone reported that children had "developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker" and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds. The television caused widespread concern as well, television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of culture.

Technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything that is developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after that is treated with suspicion. This is not to say all media technologies are harmless, and there is an important debate to be had about how new developments affect our bodies and minds. But history has shown that we rarely consider these effects in anything except the most superficial terms because our suspicions get the better of us. In retrospect, the debates about whether schooling dulls the brain or whether newspapers damage the fabric of society seem peculiar, but our children will undoubtedly feel the same about the technology scares we entertain now. It won't be long until they start the cycle anew.

Vaughan Bell. Don't Touch That Dial! Slate. February 2010.


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