Thursday, July 10, 2014

The progression of the written (and well-read) word

In the beginning information passed from one person to others through speech. Oral tradition was the only means of distributing information until the advent of visual communication, and continued for some time to be the primary means of sharing and preserving information. Cave paintings are usually recognized as the earliest form of visual communication, with the earliest known dating to 30,000 BC. More permanent visuals — carvings rather than paintings — developed shortly thereafter, with pictograms (the predecessor to hieroglyphics and cuneiform) developing by around 9000 BC. While logographic writing systems developed by around 5000 BC (Sumerian cuneiform is thought to have developed in the late 3000s), it wasn't until the late 2000s BC that we began seeing alphabetical written language as we know it today.

The spoken word, though notoriously unreliable, was still a primary option. Town criers served from antiquity through the early 20th century* as did broadsheet-style bulletins (such as the Acta Diurna), posted in prominent places,  which created an 'official' version of the news.

Similarly, the oldest written form of long-distance communication, the post, began with the Persian monarchs in the 6th century BC. The first formal postal system as we would recognize it, the Roman cursus publicus, began under Augustus as a means of communicating governmental business throughout the empire. To move information across greater distances, carrier pigeons (first known to be trained in Persia) were, according to the Roman statesman Frontinus, used by Julius C├Žsar as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks used pigeons during the Olympics, and pigeons were a common means of carrying information across great distances until the development of the telegraph in the 19th century, used by both business and military.

Our journey through the history of communications must now take a side trip to the printing press. Credited to Johannes Gutenberg, the movable-type printing press (c 1450 AD) almost doubled productivity from typographic block-printing, and greatly surpassed the efficiency of handwritten manuscripts. This innovation allowed not only for the quick and wide dissemination of materials, but also for ease in correcting future editions. Many credit the vast spread of the readings of Martin Luther — and the subsequent Protestant Reformation which changed the face of religion in the western world — to the printing press. This innovation also enabled information to spread widely and consistently and thus was the first enabler of mass communication.

This new era of communication increased literacy and empowered those outside the elite, in both church and political spheres. It also changed public expectations. The first publications that we would today recognize as newspapers† appeared in the late 16th and early 17th century, allowing the spread of detailed information to a greater number of people — whether for upright or selfish reasons.

By the mid-19th century the electric telegraph (as opposed to optical telegraphs such as smoke signals or reflected light) was used to transmit messages over long distances by wire. The commercial availability of both the system and service enabled intercontinental (first transatlantic and later to Australia) messages to be sent and read quickly. By 1902 there were cables circling the the world, bringing news, wedding announcements, death notices, and stock quotes to an eager public. Because of how it was used, the telegraph could be considered the first modern social network. The telephone added immediate voice to the benefits of the telegraph, and by the early 20th century, most homes in the western world had or had access to a telephone. The telephone, along with the radio (1895) added to the changing ways in which people interacted with information.

ARPANET, a precursor to the internet developed around 1970, was originally a text-only means of communication limited to those in select locations with special skills. Computers among specific corporations and universities were connected to share resources and information. As the internet became more widely available, Usenet newsgroups, which debuted in 1980 and are similar to modern bulletin boards or Reddit, gained popularity as ways to talk to people with similar interests. A side note: email was first introduced internally at MIT in 1965, and was widely commercially available by the late 1980s.

The World Wide Web (www) debuted in 1991. The arrival of the Mosaic graphical web browser (1993) - a predecessor to browsers like Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox - provided a means for the distribution of a variety of media, like pictures, video, and music.

As the internet has developed over the last twenty years, so have the ways in which we access it. Since the 1990s personal computers - desktop computers, such as those offered at BPL and later laptop computers - were most the common ways to access the internet. More recently, however tablets and cell phones have become popular ways to find information online. With these devices, apps, rather than the web, are becoming increasingly prevalent. E-books, Audio-books, and language learning software are even available through BPL and can be downloaded directly to your tablet, smartphone, or e-reader.

With information now retrievable via glasses and watches, who can imagine the ways in which we read words  might continue to change and grow.


*Although the functional use of the town crier ended by the early 20th century, there remain "offical town criers" in many municipalities, and there are several town crier guilds throughout North America. There are also numerous town crier competitions.

†A newspaper is dated, printed, published at regular intervals, and with a variety of news items.

Allie Graham
Arts, Literature, Sports
Central Library

1 comment:

Margaret Smith Marston said...

Interesting. For a series of reasons, I've been thinking lately a great deal about communication. This is a concise, well-written post. Thanks! Margaret (URL not yet public)

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