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Relationship between Cultural Technologies and Civilizations


In Brief: World history follows the progress of civilizations based on changing cultural technologies. Each mode of technology imparts a certain quality to public experience. Form affects substance, or, as Marshall McLuhan once said, "the medium is the message".


Civilization I began at a time when ideographic writing was being introduced. 
Civilization II began at a time when alphabetic writing was being introduced.   

Civilization III began at a time when printing was introduced in Europe.   

Civilization IV began at a time when electronic communication was introduced.   

Civilization V has begun with the introduction of computers.  

How has the introduction of these various cultural technologies affected the form and content of human cultures - their type of civilization? 

        Ideographic writing uses written symbols to express whole words - one word, one symbol - regardless of sound content. If a community's spoken vocabulary contains 10,000 words, then 10,000 symbols must be learned for written language.

Such an immense learning requirement restricts the knowledge of writing to a group of trained professionals. Temple scribes mastered this art. Ideographic writing was used to preserve knowledge, contain commercial records, keep track of tax collections and laws. In other words, it served the needs of bureaucracies.

This type of writing went hand in hand with the formation of imperial governments staffed with scribes. Imperial government was the culminating institution of Civilization I.


        Alphabetic writing assigns visual symbols to the pure sounds of speech. Letters arranged sequentially in order of sounds in a spoken word comprise the written word. Since 26 letters can represent the various sounds of spoken English, a person has only to learn 26 symbols to learn how to write. So a child learns his "A,B,Cs". Afterwards, "sounding out" a word identifies its meaning.

The reduced number of symbols made it easier to learn writing. That meant that more people could read and write. A reading public emerged. Increased literacy in Greece and other places aroused curiosity about the nature of words.

Words fixed in a solid medium such as papyrus or stone seemed to have a palpable existence. Philosophers asked: What kind of thing is this? (Plato's answer was: form.) Societies embraced the ideals of goodness and truth; ideals are essentially words. Ethical philosophies such as Plato's and Aristotle's worked their way into the ideology of the Christian religion.  

World religion was the culminating institution of Civilization II.



     Printing increases efficiency in copying written manuscripts. A plate containing lines of type "writes" an entire page of printed text in a single inked impression.

The increased efficiency of writing brought an increased volume of printed literature. It also meant that greater care could be given to producing error-free text; it was worth double-checking a text that would be reproduced many times. Spelling and type fonts could be standardized.

Because printing allowed a text to be reproduced many times in exactly the same way, one could be sure that the author's exact words were being transmitted to readers. That made it possible for individual to attract a following among persons who admired their personal writing style. Poets and authors of novels became cultural heroes.

Printing also aided the dissemination of knowledge. Scientific journals could present carefully expressed arguments to interested readers. General newsletters or newspapers attracted a mass readership that could be tapped by advertisers. Thus, commerce found a way to sell its wares through printed literature.  

Commerce and education were the culminating institutions of Civilization III.


        Electronic-communication technologies include several devices invented in the 19th and 20th centuries which made it possible to record sensuous images as well as words.

Photography was the forerunner of this type of invention. Then came the electric telegraph, the telephone, phonograph, motion-picture machine, radio, and television. Each device is capable of preserving aural or visual images and of projecting them to large and scattered audiences.

These communication devices created a culture of fast-moving, perfected images. The beautiful, rhythmic performer who inhabited this domain became a new cultural hero. The electronic media made it possible to preserve each facial expression and each inflection of a singer's voice.

Celebrity was born of exposure to vast audiences. The public became consumers of popular culture, embodied in its various kinds of rhythms. Commercial products advertised on radio or television became fast-selling brand names.

Television networks were the culminating institution of Civilization IV.


        Computer technology seems to appeal to a more intellectual or, at least, technically inclined type of person than those focused on the entertainment world. Its users often work alone in front of a terminal. They must have the ability to type.

This adds up to a network of solitary individuals, brainy but perhaps socially awkward: geeks and nerds. On the other hand, computer activity does not produce too many flaccid, TV-conditioned "couch potatoes" as the previous one did.

Perhaps as computer devices become smaller and more mobile and as more voice-recognition features are added, their use will become part of a more active and socially stimulating lifestyle. This has already started to happen.


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Impact of cultural technologies upon public experience         Some Dates in the History of Cultural Technologies  

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