Communicating while communing.
Copyright © 2018
by Ralph F. Couey
About a half a million years ago, humans began communicating through speech, and for the first time were able to communicate ideas and concepts. It took another 470,000 years before humans began using symbols in cave paintings to record events. About 10,000 years later, humans began carving into stone instead of just painting, inventing petroglyphs. Eleven thousand years after that, around 9,000 BCE, pictograms were invented. These symbols were pictures designed to communicate through drawing. This developed into cuneiform and hieroglyphs, and then evolved into logographics, where a symbol represented a word or phrase, as in Japanese or Chinese writing, around 5,000 BCE.
From 1700 BCE through about 1200 BCE, the first alphabets were invented, allowing much more detailed and complex ways to communicate. Books were first printed during the Tang Dynasty in China, and the oldest known such work is the "Diamond Sutra," which dates to around 868 CE. Papyrus had been used in Egypt since 2400 BCE, and was used in Greece and Rome. During the third century BCE, animal skins, known as parchment, was developed as the written medium of choice. The final copy of America's Declaration of Independence was written on parchment, and as any visitor to the National Archives in Washington DC can attest, such a material has great staying power.
Paper had been made in China as early as 105 CE, but it was the mechanized production of paper in Europe, beginning in the 11th century that made a writing medium cheaper and much more available. That was followed in 1440 by the invention of the Gutenberg Press, using movable type. This enabled the first mass-produced best seller, the Gutenberg Bible in 1455.
In 1874, the first commercial typewriters were built, becoming a common site in offices within 10 years. In 1900, the typewriter became electric. In 1961, IBM built the Selectric, using a removable ball instead of keys and arms, eliminating jamming. Typists also found that the Selectric reacted very fast, allowing them to reach speeds only dreamed of previously. Later models introduced the ability to correct without using correction fluid, making things move even faster.
The advent of wireless telecommunications pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi, saw in less than five years, wireless communication range extending from 6 kilometers to true trans-Atlantic wireless operations by 1901. This technology eventually grew from simple Morse code to voice transmissions. The first communications satellite, TelStar 1, was put in orbit in 1962, which made possible global transmissions of not only voice and data, but video as well.
By the mid-1970's, a new wave of word processing machines began to flow into the marketplace. These devices, equipped with a CRT screen, enabled to typist to enter text and correct errors or redrafts before committing the final version to paper. The computer revolution in the mid to late 1980's put word processing software on microcomputers, and the dedicated word processor/typewriter became extinct. Many offices would keep a few Selectrics around to type forms layered with carbon paper until software advances digitized forms which were saved on computer drives.
In 1973, the first hand-held mobile telephone was manufactured, a brick-sized device weighing a mastodonic 4.4 pounds. These were quickly followed by the widely-used bag phones from 1991 to 2000. Improvements in technology made the devices more compact. Around 2005, bandwidth was greatly expanded through 3G and 4G networks which made it possible to stream massive amounts of data, leading to the first real smartphones. Actually more like hand-held computers, the common smartphone of today has more computing power than the room-sized behemoths of the 1960's.
Technology continues to race forward. Soon 5G networks will expand data capability by an order of magnitude, and as the electronics inside the phones become more sophisticated, even more amazing things developments will occur.
My current phone, a Samsung Note 4, is almost outmoded. Still, I can do almost everything on my phone that I can do on my desktop. I can not only talk on the phone, I can video chat while transmitting documents and data. Perhaps in a decade or two, the handheld phone will be replaced by a chip in our brain.
And yet, with all this communication going on, most people seem to feel more cut off; isolated. Younger folks especially treat their phones not just as a communication device, but an emotional lifeline. Their world has been reduced to a screen and a keyboard. Many cities are now passing ordinances banning distracted walking to keep these folks from walking into traffic or disappearing down an open manhole.
My wife and I were out to eat one evening when a young couple occupied the table across from us. For the entire time they were there, they spoke not a single word. They took out their phones and texted each other. Occasionally they would look up and smile at each other, but there was no verbal communication at all. I've seen this pattern repeated more than I would care to, and that bothers me because people like that have forgotten that real communication involves much more than a keyboard. Facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, all necessary ingredients to true communication seem to have been left behind.
But times change, and so do we. If science fiction writers have been accurate, at some point we will evolve beyond verbal communication to the extra-sensory, instantaneous communication between brains. And who knows what happens next.
So why this rant? I carry a notebook around with me because, being a writer, and the owner of an aging brain, I understand how fleeting good ideas can be, and how quickly they can depart without a forwarding address. When an idea occurs to me, I have to write it down. A young person saw me doing this, and noting the smart phone hooked to my belt, asked, "Why don't you use your phone for that?"
I stopped and thought about that for a moment. I really didn't have a good answer, except that I write better with a pad and pen then with a smartphone, which I guess makes me a dinosaur of sorts. Lacking any other answer, I replied, "If this was good enough for Hemingway, it's good enough for me."
And yet, here I sit in front of my computer, typing this post into a web log, or blog.
I'm old enough to remember writing term papers in long hand, then laboring away on a typewriter, having to discard and re-type entire pages after making an error, or retyping the whole blame thing when I found a paragraph that had to be inserted. (And also going to a library in the pre-Google years and pouring through hundreds of books for information and citations.) For executing a finished product, there's nothing better than what I use now, Microsoft Word, my desktop, and printer. It's a good deal less painful, and the elimination of a lot of what used to be manual labor allows me to focus more on what I'm writing about.
I'll be turning 63 next month, an age I thought as elderly just a few years ago. I don't know how much longer I'll be around, but it excites me to think of where tech can take us, in the context of human communications.
I just hope that we can keep the human heart at the center of that process.