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On human culture – and on how it got printed and then electrified

This coming Sunday, January 6th, I am to give a talk at my friend Christian Michel’s home in London, about the historical impact of the technology of information storage and communication. The somewhat cumbersome title I have supplied to Christian goes like this:

The difficulty and the ease of the making of and the distribution of cultural objects: A history of human civilisation in three layers

Yes, a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a complicated story.

The pre-talk blurb underneath that title, that I also sent to Christian, and some of which Christian has just emailed out to his list of potential attenders, went like this:

I love grand theories of history, and here’s another: history in terms of the storage and communication of what is dryly known as “information”. In more vivid English, in terms of all the cultural meanings we have created for ourselves and for each other (and also at each other, so to speak) over the centuries since humans first contrived to craft meaningful messages beyond what they merely said to one another.

There are three “layers” to the story I’ll be telling, divided into three by two history dates.

Layer One: Creating “cultural objects” is difficult and so is transmitting or communicating them.

Layer Two: Creating “cultural objects” suddenly becomes much easier, for those who command the means to do it, but transmitting them or communicating them remains difficult.

Layer Three: Both creating and communicating messages becomes easy.

Layer Two starts settling on top of Layer One with the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the early 1450s. Layer Three starts to settle on top of Layers One and Two with the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1840s. (Morse code etc.)

Layers rather than “eras”, because the cultural habits and political institutions established during Layers One and Two – the civilisational divisions of Layer One and the nationalist passions (to say nothing of printing itself) characteristic of Layer Two – never went away and are still very much with us today.

Of course there’s much more to my story than that crude summary. I will elaborate on the above simplicities as much as time permits.

I’d be interested in what the Samizdata commentariat has to say about all or any of this.

For now, I will merely elaborate a little, as I will on the night, on the matter of those “civilisational divisions and nationalist passions”.

Concerning those civilisational divisions, the dominant species on our planet might have had a very different sort of communicational history to the one that we humans have actually experienced.

One can easily imagine an alternative Planet Earth much less dominated by the oddity of emerging geographical barriers, or inhabited by creatures for whom our barriers were and are not barriers. Our Earth could have had much less in the way of oceans, mountains and deserts. Or, the dominant species might have been some sort of bird or amphibian, utterly at home in or above the seas as well as on most of the land. In such a world, the dominant species might never have become scattered about on Planet Earth, during the time we now refer to with words like “antiquity”, in various different and geographically separated cultures, in a state of more or less total mutual ignorance, as we humans actually were. Hence those civilisational divisions, divisions which are still very much with us now.

In 1848, Karl Marx published his Communist Manifesto, in which he famously urged the workers of the world to “unite”. That Marx said this just four years after the first public demonstration of the ability of Samuel Morse’s famous Morse Code to send messages along electric wires is no coincidence. Ever since Morse’s triumph, various humans have prophesied human cultural and political union, of some sort, much more unionised, so to speak, than hitherto. Modern electronic communication has encouraged a bit of such union. The rulers of the recently dominant civilisation, known as “The West”, have coagulated into a mutually self-supporting group, whose members communicate more intimately with one another than they do with the local underlings whose taxes and payments support them. But the great civilisations dating from antiquity still confront one another as, at best, commercial competitors and also as at least potential military antagonists. Most portentously, the European offshoot that is the USA now squares up to China. Our hope now must be that the mutually assured destruction embodied in nuclear weaponry will concentrate minds and keep the peace. So far so good, but fingers crossed.

Having emerged in the mid-fifteenth century in Europe, the printing press had, as one of its several effects, separated The West into mutually antagonistic nations and empires, divided along linguistic lines. And print was never more influential than during the age of national newspapers, which got underway (with the arrival of railways and mechanised printing) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Contrary to Marx’s hopes, nationalism did not fade with the arrival of those electric wires.

Following the disastrous episode that was Soviet Communism, a global ideology that quickly degenerated into just another excuse for something a lot more like old-school nationalism, it seemed that global union might finally arrive. But that vision of global union, like Bolshevism before it, is a threat as well as a promise, and the various national populations of The West are now divided by and reacting against such globalism.

Etcetera, etcetera, and so on and so on. In the original version of this posting, there were several more paragraphs, but like an old newspaper editor, I decided to deploy my metaphorical scissors at this rather randomly chosen point, letting the original ending just fall into the bin. Over to you, commenters.

16 comments to On human culture – and on how it got printed and then electrified

  • bobby b

    “Ever since Morse’s triumph, various humans have prophesied human cultural and political union . . . “

    This makes sense if you assume that human conflict stems from rational doctrinal differences that may be effectively addressed intellectually, by, say, sharing our thoughts and arguments with others.

    Good luck with that.

    We’ll be closer to “human cultural and political union” on the day that every new child born shares the exact same light-brown/yellow skin hue. I figure thirty generations ought to be enough to finally subsume racial groups.

    Only after that day arrives will we even start on the rational doctrinal differences. Heck, by then we’ll all be wired together 24/7 anyway, which will constitute Layer Four of your construct, in which we realize that the concept of “cultural objects” without distinct cultures is a bit daft and so we seek ways to limit all of the damned sharing and communicating so that we can actually HAVE distinct cultures and thus “cultural objects.”

    Layer Five will involve book-burning, I suspect . . .

  • Sean

    I hope Claude Shannon is given his due. His Master’s thesis is the key to digital circuit design – and his Information Theory is the foundation of digital communication. I’ve often wondered why Turing gets way more coverage – Shannon was way more influential.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “This makes sense if you assume that human conflict stems from rational doctrinal differences that may be effectively addressed intellectually, by, say, sharing our thoughts and arguments with others.”

    No reason for doctrine to be rational, but apart from that, yes. The process of cultural and moral integration is slow, and takes place over generations, but is a part of the story of our rapid technological advance.

    “We’ll be closer to “human cultural and political union” on the day that every new child born shares the exact same light-brown/yellow skin hue. I figure thirty generations ought to be enough to finally subsume racial groups.”

    Once everyone shares the same culture, skin colour will be as irrelevant as hair colour, eye colour, or blood group. Or the clothes you wear, or your hair style.

    “I hope Claude Shannon is given his due. His Master’s thesis is the key to digital circuit design – and his Information Theory is the foundation of digital communication. I’ve often wondered why Turing gets way more coverage – Shannon was way more influential.”

    Everything is invented as a result of the efforts and insights of many people. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” It is through the accumulation and sharing of knowledge – the more people know, the more likely it is and the sooner it will be that one of them will take the next step. Knowledge sharing results in a positive feedback loop – and thus an exponential explosion in development.

    Why, for example, should Morse get all the credit for the telegraph, and not Leonard Gale? Or Oliver Heaviside? Or a hundred others? Because he’s just a figurehead – a handy label to hang the simplified narrative onto. It’s not about who actually did it, but who makes the most inspirational/memorable story about it.

  • bobby b

    “Once everyone shares the same culture, skin colour will be as irrelevant as hair colour, eye colour, or blood group. Or the clothes you wear, or your hair style.”

    True if we could ever reach that, but my point was that, given what I’ve seen of humanity, I doubt we could ever meld culture until we lose the racial-divide problem. The race issue is the original prerequisite for progress on the rest.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I think, and hope, that we will never “meld cultures.”

    Nor “mind-meld,” either. The Hive Mind is what socialism (communism) requires and seeks. Interchangeable stand-ins for human beings.

    The idea is appalling. And is the stuff of which much dystopian SF is made.

    “Multiculturalism” is actually quite a good thing, when it means that people can celebrate the Chinese New Year and watch the parade in Chinatown, and then, come March, wear the green of the shamrock and enjoy the St. Paddy’s Day parade.

    I want Marshall Field’s windows done up in their Christmas glory, which you just don’t get in Mendota, Ill. There, you get the Sweet Corn Festival just before Labor Day. And I want good Jewish delis and Middle-Eastern-Morrocan-Israeli food (especially falafel!) not Fusionized to some mixed bag of recipes that destroy the individual character of the ingredients and of the dishes.

    I want Chinese food in Chinatown, save a few of the classical innovations dreamed up for American tastes. I want Greek food in Greektown, and Midwestern country cooking in Rockford.

    I want leisurely drives through the beautiful Illinois farmland, which is nothing like the exciting cruise all the way around Manhattan.

    Everything Has a Downside,™ and thoroughgoing social homogeneity is no exception.

  • Julie near Chicago

    But of course, these cultural differences (Rosh Hashana vs. Chinese New Year vs. American-British New Year, etc.) can be celebrated and enjoyed much better if the various races and ethnicities and religions and value-systems aren’t at each other’s throats.

    I do agree with you on that, bobby.

    .

    *Fretful expression* I do hope Jeeves has put aside a healthy portion of cold steak-and-kidney pie for me, as I am feeling peckish after all this food talk.

  • +1 to Julie near Chicago (January 3, 2019 at 8:55 am) about the potential evils of a common culture: intellectual diversity, and the ability to vote on culture with your feet, is indeed a strength – one that often enables cultural advance precisely because small groups are less deterred from trying different approaches. China never created an alphabet to rival and replace pictograms because (I suggest) it was too unified. (Political unity is the greater danger, but we, who know how fast a twitter mob can cross the pond, can ponder the excesses of cultural unity.)

    Reading some history gave me thoughts about writing’s ability to conceal, as well as to reveal. When Raleigh’s colonists arrived at the island of Roanoke, they made a deal with the local chief (Wingina, of the mainland Roanoc tribe) to settle the island. Wingina hoped to use them as allies to attack a neighbouring tribe (that had invited his people to a treacherous feast two years before) and when they proved less than eager, he decided to exterminate the young colony, adopted his war name (Pemisapan) and sent runners to gather his and allied forces. As the tribes had no writing, all messages had to be sent by word of mouth, so knowledge of the planned attack spread to a great many who did not need to know (or did not need to know at this early stage of preparing it), making the chain of events that led to the English learning of it before the chief struck merely the ‘what actually happened’ one of a range of ways they could have been warned. Governor Lane’s countermeasures benefitted from being sealed written orders, sent to those who needed to know them.

    Brian, I don’t think either of these two points need contradict your main thesis (insofar as I grasp it from the OP summary). I offer them as my contribution to the comments you solicited.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “True if we could ever reach that, but my point was that, given what I’ve seen of humanity, I doubt we could ever meld culture until we lose the racial-divide problem. The race issue is the original prerequisite for progress on the rest.”

    The root of the conflict is culture – especially moral systems. People generally use the most easily visible indication that is correlated with cultural divides as a proxy for it, and if there isn’t one they invent one. The clothes you wear, the accent you speak with, team colours, badges and insignia – skin colour is only one of hundreds of markers humans have used for dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’ and no more significant than all the rest.

    “I think, and hope, that we will never “meld cultures.””

    I don’t mean it in quite the way I think you think I do.

    “The idea is appalling. And is the stuff of which much dystopian SF is made.”

    Dystopian SF has two main tropes: forced melding/destruction of cultures by an authoritarian society, and cultural values so at odds with our own that we consider them immoral, disgusting, or horrifying. (Often this is in cases where they conflict with the more authoritarian elements of our own current society.) I am, of course, against cultural authoritarianism, but there are other ways for cultures to change.

    ““Multiculturalism” is actually quite a good thing, when it means that people can celebrate the Chinese New Year and watch the parade in Chinatown, and then, come March, wear the green of the shamrock and enjoy the St. Paddy’s Day parade.

    I want Marshall Field’s windows done up in their Christmas glory, which you just don’t get in Mendota, Ill. There, you get the Sweet Corn Festival just before Labor Day. And I want good Jewish delis and Middle-Eastern-Morrocan-Israeli food (especially falafel!) not Fusionized to some mixed bag of recipes that destroy the individual character of the ingredients and of the dishes.

    I want Chinese food in Chinatown, save a few of the classical innovations dreamed up for American tastes. I want Greek food in Greektown, and Midwestern country cooking in Rockford.”

    So that’s a merger of elements from Chinese, Irish, Christian, Jewish, Arabic, American, and Greek culture, all of them available for you to enjoy, yes? You’re not required to pick one and stick to it, yes? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    When people of different cultures mix, the next generation picks the best from each, all the elements they really like, and hop from one to another freely. The generation after take it for granted that there are all these different styles of cooking/celebration. Ten generations later, nobody even remembers where they come from, the same way we borrow words from other languages and then forget the words are actually foreign, and not English at all. (‘Chowder’ and ‘Prairie’ are French, ‘Canyon’ and ‘Mosquito’ are Spanish, ‘Tattoo’ is Polynesian, ‘Lemon’ is Arabic, and so on.) Cultures evolve and change.

    What I’m talking about is a free market in culture. Pick the best elements from every culture available, nobody is forced to adhere to any, no cultures are excluded or restricted, or banned by law. If they die out because nobody wants to live that way any more, so be it. If people want to mix them they can. If people want to stick to just one historic subset they can. The only requirement is that no culture is allowed to interfere with the freedom of any other, and everyone gets to choose for themselves. Everything else constitutes options within a common, internally diverse culture.

    The world is moving in that direction anyway. Kids around the world wear jeans and T-shirts and listen to Western music. They choose to do so, freely. Nobody is forcing them. Food has gone global, too. Neighbours naturally copy one another, and moderate their behaviour to avoid conflict with their neighbours. As the world becomes one big neighbourhood, the borders will melt away. You could consider it the ‘American Dream’ going global.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I think it worth noting that there’s a third, earlier transition point of equal importance: The shift from orality to literacy. Plato had Socrates warning that the written word would destroy the human intellect, and while it may not have done that, it certainly changed the quantity of cultural information that could be accumulated, not to mentioned being a prerequisite for the other two.

  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    As in economics, wherein a mathematically fictional Walras Equilibrium is a self-evident, oxymoronic contradiction-in-terms, real-world constraints reduce any one-size-fits-all hypothesis to absurdity.

    No more than evolution’s adaptive radiation can any socio-cultural milieu ignore normally distributed comparative advantage, marginal utility based on inherently diverse circumstances emphasizing survival imperatives in disparate place-and-time.

    In any case, we have long supposed that following the AI Singularity of c. AD 2030, organic evolution will have largely ceased by 2100. Superseded by hyperlinked neural nets of cyber-sentient nodes called “symbionts”, effectively immortal, spontaneously self-emergent affinity-groups will begin post-human exfoliation outward, to the stars.

  • Julie near Chicago

    NiV,

    I generally think of “melding” as being a process in which two distinct objects become one in all vital respects; so that they lose their individuality. So “mind-melding” would mean that two or more living creatures’s consciousnesses would unite to become one consciousness, and in the melding of two cultures each would completely lose its distinctiveness, and homogeneity would ensue. Hence the Hive Mind, as for instance in the movie Dark City.

    It’s already bad enough that there’s no reason to make a special trip to visit this or that shopping mall, insofar as they’re all alike. It’s true that this is convenient for business travellers, but it also lessens the spice of variety that they get in their travels.

    Actually, it was bobby who used the word “meld.” He was saying that human cultures can’t “meld” until there are no apparent differences in skin color. But it’s one thing for two societies to be alike in basic outlook in regard to the value and significance of human life in general, and another thing entirely for the two societies to develop an essential, monotonous sameness.

    That’s the meaning that comes to me when I hear or read the word. So yes, your understanding of the word is quite different from that.

  • ns

    bobby b and NiV – you may be overly optimistic on the unity after no differences in skin color, etc. Subgroups will spring up, ranging from the relatively peaceful (trekkies vs. Star Wars) through the more violent (Mods and Skinheads? Crips and Bloods?) to the ultraviolent like Mao or Stalin pushing minor differences in status as a reason to murder and steal.
    Julie near Chicago – Speaking of culture, does Chicago still have the Christkindl market in Daley Plaza?

  • Paul Marks

    “Once everyone shares the same culture”.

    Well what culture will that be?

    Western culture is clearly in terrible decline – even the family is collapsing, people are not replacing themselves and those babies are born are often not born into families. Society in most Western countries is in deep trouble – and things are getting worse.

    The disconnect between the elite (who claim all is well – and getting better) and the bitter reality – is total. Things may improve – but only if people first see the truly horrible nature of the situation, and apply their minds to try and restore society.

    I agree that being horrified is not enough – but it is a start. And unless one recognises the truly horrific nature of the problem (the decline of the West|) one is not likely to be of much use in trying to reverse it.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Well what culture will that be?”

    Asking that question is like asking what technology we will have in a hundred years. We can’t possibly predict. Whatever we invent. Whatever we choose.

    “Western culture is clearly in terrible decline – even the family is collapsing, people are not replacing themselves and those babies are born are often not born into families. Society in most Western countries is in deep trouble – and things are getting worse.”

    That sounds a lot like the environmentalists. Take any current trend, extrapolate in a straight line indefinitely, and predict disaster when it hits the limits. We’re running out of food. We’re running out of oil. We’re running out of mineral resources. We’re running out of clean water. We’re running out of space. We’re running out of trees. We’re running out of wildlife. We’re poisoning the planet. We’re getting poorer. Technology is breaking down, and disrupting society. Wealth is getting more unequal. We’re doomed.

    As I understand it, reproduction rates are based on economics – on some variety of supply and demand. The equilibrium point fluctuates up and down, so population does too. So surely it would be as unwise to extrapolate a short-term decline all the way to extinction as it is to extrapolate a temporarily rising population to Malthusian starvation and standing-room-only, yes? The logic of both arguments is surely much the same.

    Society changes. It always has. You could say that the culture we had 500 years ago or a 1000 years ago is now dead and gone. We don’t live like that any more. With each passing generation we mourn the loss of many things of cultural value, but we replaced them with other things that are also of value. Over the past 100 years, 50 years, even 20 years we have invented so much, culturally. Cultural development is expanding exponentially at an ever faster rate. And we’re passing that innovation on to other nations/cultures at an ever faster rate, too. Again, it may be unsafe to extrapolate too far, but human inventiveness and problem-solving is showing no signs of slowing down yet. Could people like Hans Rosling and Julian Simon have a point about unending pessimism?

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