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A Conversation with Socrates

One can think of cultural technologies as a way to amplify personal experience. Personal experience begins with a face-to-face conversation. Let us suppose that, as an impressionable young man or woman, you are sitting across the table from an intellectually inspiring person such as Socrates. In top form, he is discussing life’s purpose with a thoughtful intensity that keeps your attention riveted on each word. As you listen to Socrates’ arguments and respond to his questions, certain issues in your life suddenly become clear. You have transformative insights. You are fairly bursting with excitement over these ideas. Then the conversation ends. You shake hands with Socrates, rise, and leave the table. As you leave, Socrates’ words are still ringing in your ears. Many of his thoughts remain with you. You know that you have just had an extraordinary experience and want to retain its inspiration for as long as possible.

What you immediately have is your own memory of the experience. But memory fades fast. So you take out pencil and paper and write down as much of the conversation as you can recall. You try to reconstruct parts of the conversation. Perhaps you can remember some of Socrates’ actual words. After you are done, you have a written record of your experience. This can later be used to revive its memory. Although this record presents the conversation in an abbreviated form, it captures some of the ideas, phrases, and illustrative examples that you thought were important. Picking it up five or ten years later, you will be reminded of certain details that might otherwise have been lost. Any other literate person, though lacking personal experience of the event, would have an idea of your encounter with Socrates from reading this written account. Writing, as a cultural technology, has here achieved two results. First, it has preserved your recollection of the experience. Second, it has passed knowledge of the experience to another person. Metaphorically, one can say that your writing has extended the experience in time and in space.

Plato actually sat, if not across the table from Socrates, at his feet or in a nearby place as he engaged in philosophical discussions with citizens of Athenians. Plato’s Dialogues consist of quotations attributed to Socrates and his conversation partners, supplemented by narrative descriptions which place the discussions in a dramatic setting. Although their accuracy is limited by the author’s powers of recollection, the conversations seem lifelike. One would suppose that they faithfully represent experiences that happened more than twenty-four hundred years ago. Socrates’ conversations have, then, an impressive temporal extension as a result of Plato’s writing. Spatially, the conversations have been extended to millions of readers through copied manuscripts and printed texts. Many more people have “eavesdropped” on Socrates’ conversations through the Dialogues than would physically have been possible when those discussions originally took place.

Written language is well suited to expression of ideas. What it cannot do well is preserve the sensuous aspect of an experience. Part of your inspiration in talking with Socrates might have come from observing his facial gestures, inflections of his voice, and his general physical appearance. Some other cultural technology would be needed to extend that part of memory. The discovery of electricity and advancements in techniques for recording aural and visual images through electromagnetic impulses or chemical reactions have produced a new set of cultural technologies that capture images of sensory experience. For example, a photographer equipped with a camera might have taken pictures of Socrates’ face at particular points in the conversation. Because the meaning of speech is conveyed partly through facial gestures, it would add something to the remembered experience to be able to visualize the speaker’s face. In this case, a visual image of Socrates would be extended in time as the words had been through Plato’s writing.

One can imagine other ways that modern technology might have extended the experience of talking with Socrates:

* If someone had placed a tape recorder on the table where Socrates sat, humanity would have had a permanent record of the sounds that came out of the discussion. It would then have become possible to know the exact words which Socrates spoke as well as inflections in his voice, significant pauses, and other aural elements that conveyed subliminal meanings. This technology represents both an improvement upon Plato’s memory of words and a way to pick up on part of the sensory experience.

* If a film crew or someone equipped with a camcorder had stood near the table and shot the entire conversation, then humanity would have had a permanent record of both the aural and visual parts of the experience. The facial expressions and other body language might additionally have been preserved.

* If a microphone had been placed on top of the table, then the sound of the conversation could have been transmitted to a loud speaker in another room where a large number of people could listen to it while seated comfortably.

* If a speaker telephone had been placed on the table, the conversation might have been heard by someone hundreds of miles away listening to it through a telephone receiver.

* If the conversation had been broadcast by a radio transmitter, then a much larger group of people living within range of the broadcast might have listened to it in the comfort of their homes.

* If the conversation had been broadcast by a television transmitter, then an equally large number of persons equipped with television sets might have experienced both the sights and sounds of the conversation with Socrates.

In this context, nothing beats the experience of actually sitting down with Socrates and having a face-to-face conversation. The disadvantage is that, apart from one’s personal memory, the experience is lost once the conversation ends. The cultural technologies extend memory or expand the range of the experience to other people. One should note, however, that none of the above-mentioned technologies permit two-way communication with Socrates. We can read Socrates’ words as printed in the Dialogues, but we cannot inject our own comments or questions into the conversation. We can view Socrates’ image in a videotape, but not affect the scene ourselves.

Only computer technology has the capability of transcending this limitation. Potentially, it can allow human spectators to engage in interactive discussions with intelligent machines. If a computer’s memory replicated the knowledge held in Socrates’ brain, then everyone who now lives or will ever live could experience something approaching a real two-way conversation with this great sage.

Qualitative Changes in an Expression

The substitution of an experience captured in an artificial medium of expression for the real experience has at least three consequences. First, it extends the image in time and space. It allows the image to be received by an enlarged group of people. The image can belong to entire communities, not just the individuals who experienced it directly. Second, the expression of an experience through a particular medium changes the nature of the experience. The distinct qualities inherent in the medium color the type of experience that is received. The medium itself affects content. Third, an image or experience which is captured in an artificial medium becomes subject to editing. Generally, the changed image represents an improvement on the original. On the other hand, artificially improved images produce a distorted kind of experience.

Regarding the first effect, one sees that, because the amplification of an image allows it to reach many more people, it becomes the basis of a public experience. The cultural technology creates a world apart from what individuals directly experience. Activities of persons inhabiting the uppermost levels of society are brought into public view. History records experiences at this level. It is what we read in the newspapers or see on television, representing events of public life. At a lower level, societies consist of individuals interacting personally with other individuals. As people become aware of events in the wider society, their perspectives of community broaden from immediate personal experiences to events affecting neighborhoods, cities, nations, and the world. Each level of society has its own public life. At the higher levels, where history takes place, people experience events almost entirely through cultural technologies which mediate between them and historical figures.

In our illustration of the conversation with Socrates, we have assumed that the media merely amplify an experience. The cultural technologies extend an image in time and space without alteration. In other words, when something is recorded in an expansive medium of communication, the quantity of an experience is changed but not the quality. That assumption is incorrect. With increased quantity often comes a change in quality. One type of change has to do with the nature of the medium in which the image is expressed. For example, the world of book learning is quite different from the world of commercial radio. Print culture brings out the logical, rational side of an experience. Cultures arising from the electronic media bring out its emotional, rhythmic aspect. Therefore, you would not expect to find a discussion of world history like this one broadcast on a radio station even though, theoretically, an announcer might read the same words on the air. A group of media scholars, led by Marshall McLuhan, has emphasized the essential connection between what and how something is communicated. That connection is expressed in McLuhan’s famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.”

There is a type of qualitative change which has to do with increased quantity per se. Experiences which take place on a personal level have a different feel than those broadcast through a medium. The one is artificial while the other is real. The artificial experiences transmitted by cultural technologies, are, in a sense, “better” than the real ones. Consider a homespun example. If your cultural horizon extends no farther than the family, the most that you can hope to experience culturally would be to hear Aunt Alice play a Chopin piece on the piano in her living room. But if you are tuned to network television, then you can expect to hear the same piece played by a world-renowned concert pianist. Because the television networks attract large audiences and earn commensurate advertising revenues, they can afford to hire the very best performers for their programs. Industry pioneers such as David Sarnoff and Lord Reith of the BBC thought that this meant broadcasting works of high culture - every night, something from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or the Vienna State Opera. Even if network television went in a different direction, its programs are at least carefully crafted. Real-life, down-to-earth, amateurish, cheap entertainment does not appear here.

Ordinary life contains its share of sloppiness and confusion. Events drag on to a boring length. In the world of television entertainment, routine imperfections can be avoided by hiring the best producers and performers and by editing out mistakes. Its world can be filled with entertainment routines and personalities of proven popular appeal. This world presents a hothouse culture of quickly ripening styles and of beautiful women and smart, high-energy men in glamorous situations. No one would confuse Show Biz with the humdrum lives which most of us live. The economics of television broadcasting provides the resources for a more energetic and sparkling kind of existence than what one would normally experience. Similarly, the fact that print technology multiplies written images so many times reduces the per-unit cost of publishing books. This means that the authors who are published can afford to linger over their choice of words, loading them with extra insight and care. The manuscript which goes to print will be the product of many revisions. The literary world will thus become a place of unnatural sensibilities where artistry has ripened into exquisite expression and perhaps created hidden levels of symbolic meaning.

What holds art back from pushing toward an esoteric extreme is the fact that, if it is to appeal to a large number of people, its expressions must relate to their world of experience. Ordinary people, not artistic geniuses, are the ultimate arbiters of popular culture. The first impulse of television producers was to present critically acclaimed dramatic works or entertainment extravaganzas with fancy chorus lines and expensive costuming. But the people did not want this for their regular fare. They wanted I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, featuring clutsy-looking comic performers in familiar routines. Believable, if stereotypical, personalities have become the staple of television culture. One might suppose that carefully edited programs achieve a consistently higher level of quality than unedited or live programs and, therefore, that all entertainment will eventually gravitate towards that mode. But that assumption forgets the importance of believability in cultural presentations. Live programs appear to be more spontaneous and real.

From a historical perspective, the fact that a single author or performer can communicate directly with a multitude of people means that larger communities can be formed which share a common consciousness. Societies without writing necessarily exist in village-sized communities. Kingdoms controlling much territory require a means of communicating with greater numbers of people. So the introduction of written language goes hand in hand with the formation of larger-sized political units that are hierarchically organized. Through such a medium, emperors can issue commands to their far-flung subjects. So also the introduction of printing vastly increased the amount of news and information available to the masses, which is a prerequisite for democratic government. If it is true that each cultural technology adds a certain flavoring to public experience, then the fact that these technologies were invented and introduced at different times in history means that the subsequent periods were differently flavored. Human culture was different when only handwritten messages existed than it was when the technologies of printing and electronic communication came into common use.

Changing cultural technologies create changing modes of public experience. Therefore, the successive introduction of new cultural technologies at particular times in history mark the beginning of new civilizations. Each will be shaped by the mix of technologies then acting upon the culture. The interior consciousness of human communities will be affected by innate qualities in each medium or mix of media that project its public life. Historical epochs, being periods of consistent cultural flavoring and theme, will tend to follow the succession of technologies by which their messages are expressed and through whose lens their events are perceived.

A Series of Cultural Technologies

“If it is speech that marks man off from the beast,” wrote Sir Ellis Minns, a British archeologist, “the invention of writing and its improvement into a practical system may fairly be taken as the step leading to full civilization.” Speech is the principal means of communication in personal life; writing, in the larger life of communities. (At least, that was true before the days of telephones, radio, and television.) Spoken language is by far the most important cultural technology. Its technique is taught quite competently in informal settings within the home. Nearly every human tribe has a spoken language. Most individuals learn to speak by a certain age. It is not so with writing. This technology was invented only five or six thousand years ago, and many persons, if not tribes, have remained illiterate. Unlike speech, the arts of reading and writing are usually learned in a classroom setting. Literacy appears to be an essential distinguishing feature between civilizations and primitive societies.

Cultural technologies, as opposed to the mechanical arts, have to do with expressing and communicating thoughts, images, words, numbers, mental perceptions and feelings. Spoken language could take place without the use of tools, but writing requires some implement to leave symbolic markings in a smooth and impressionable material. Nearly every civilized society developed a system of writing. Some societies copied the technique from its original source (which was Mesopotamia) but others also acquired it either through independent invention or some unknown cultural exchange. The dates when the various societies acquired writing are a matter of historical fact, limited to our extent of knowledge. Before writing, societies had cultures based on perpetuating their tribal memories by word of mouth. Afterwards, other cultural technologies were invented which represent improvements on basic writing or techniques for encoding sensuous images in chemical patterns or electromagnetic impulses or waves.

Not all technological inventions are of a magnitude to sway history. This book proposes five types of cultural technologies for the purpose of defining historical change. The five categories include the following:

(1) Writing: We mean here writing in a primitive form - that is, pre-alphabetic script. Visual representation has advanced beyond the stage of drawing to symbolize ideas. Each symbol represents an idea corresponding to a spoken word. The symbol represents the word as a whole, not a phonetic element. Written language began with the use of such ideograms by Sumerian and Egyptian scribes in the 4th millennium B.C.

(2) Alphabetic writing: This was a new scheme of writing in which words are comprised of letters corresponding to phonetic elements. The letters are arranged in the same order as their sounds in the spoken words. A person who knows the sound associated with each letter can “sound out” a word phonetically and learn its meaning from prior knowledge of speech. Alphabetic scripts came into common use in the Middle East, Greece, and India during the 1st millennium B.C.

(3) Printing: While the alphabetic structure of written language remained unchanged, an advancement was made in the method of reproducing script. Printing presses were able to produce multiple copies of texts far more efficiently and cheaply than manuscript copyists could. This type of machine “writes” an entire page of text when inked type touches the paper. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of an improved printing technique in the mid 15th century A.D. brought printed literature to Europe.

(4) Electronic communication: This category includes various inventions including the photograph, telegraph, telephone, cinema, tape and video recording, radio, and television. Such devices capture visual or aural images (including spoken words) in a medium sensitive to light or sound by transforming sense impressions into chemical reactions, electrical impulses, or changes in electromagnetic field. The patterns are stored in the medium in such a way that they can later be retrieved. Some devices transmit images electromagnetically over a long distance through metal wires or air waves. These technologies were developed by European or American inventors during the 19th and 20th centuries.

(5) Computers: Computers also capture, store, and transmit images in an electromagnetic medium. Additionally, they break down images and information, manipulate data, and produce informational or sensory output customized to the user. Computers apply mathematical and logical processes to data manipulation. They permit two-way communication with users. This type of machine was mainly developed during the second half of the 20th century.

The Prehistoric Culture of Memory

The period of time before writing was invented we call “prehistoric” partly because we lack enduring records of humanity’s internal experience. Human beings have lived on earth for many thousands of years, but only for the last six thousand years or so have written records been kept of their activities. One can imagine how prehistoric man might have lived from stone tools, bones, and other remains found at excavated sites. Written language allows archeologists and historians to acquire a fuller picture of life in long-lost societies. To a large extent, our knowledge and view of various people’s historical importance depend upon the volume and quality of literature which these people handed down to posterity. We know little of the pre-Aryan peoples of India and next to nothing of their history because their script remains undeciphered.

The preliterate age extends back to a time when, one would suppose, man lived largely by instinct, which is a sort of knowledge stored in the genes. Cultural knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next in the form of stories, chants, prayers, and other constructs of spoken language, often presented in a ritualistic context. A child learns speech from a parent, who has likewise learned from a parent, and so on. Memory is a natural structure which holds this knowledge together. What we today regard as sublime poetry was once a device to support memory. The poems of Homer were composed in dactylic hexameter, with six stressed syllables in each line. This rhythmic arrangement helped to remember elements in the poetic repertoire. The Homeric epics were not a fixed structure of words as in modern poetry, but a set of improvisations variously recited by the different bards. Holding in memory an inventory of metric formulae associated with characters in the story, the reciters would each produce their own version of the poem in correct meter during its performance. So each bard who recited the poems would create them anew.

While preliterate peoples also communicated through visual images, those images did not advance to a level of symbolic abstraction. Paintings of animals, geometric patterns, and human likenesses dating back tens of thousands of years have been found in caves around the world. Their purpose was probably related to rituals or symbolic magic rather than to communicating verbal messages. Notches carved in animal bones perhaps 30,000 years ago may have represented numbers. A precursor of written language would be the use of marked objects as mnemonic aids to keep track of complex information. The Incas of Peru used a device called “quipus”, which consisted of knotted cords or threads of different colors and lengths strung from a cross bar. The Iroquois Indians had a type of belt called “wampum” upon which stories were recorded through pictures in the colored beads. This belt doubled as a medium of monetary exchange. Other peoples have reinforced their memory through the use of notched sticks, knotted handkerchiefs or leather straps, and stringed beads or shells.

Several ancient peoples attributed the invention of writing to a god or some divinely inspired person in the past. The Egyptians credited the god Thoth, or Theuth. A passage in Plato’s Phaedrus tells how an Egyptian king named Thamus discussed with Theuth which of his cultural inventions ought to be made available to mankind. When Thamus suggested the art of writing, Theuth said, “Here, O King, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories.” But Thamus, the king, replied that Theuth’s recommendation of writing had “declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls, they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

The Greeks in Plato’s time were on the frontier between oral and written culture. Their use of writing therefore carried over something of the function to support memory. Arnold Toynbee observed that “in the Graeco-Roman world, the written word had a function that was not unlike that of the typescript which a speaker is required to have in front of him at Broadcasting House when he is talking over the radio. Like the present-day broadcaster’s typescript, the Graeco-Roman ‘book’ was really a system of mnemonics for conjuring up winged words, and not a book in our sense of something intended for reading to oneself.” In contrast, the Aramaean and Hebrew people had been continuously literate since the 10th century B.C. Their sacred literature drew from still more ancient sources in Babylonian and Sumerian culture. Therefore, Toynbee continued, “in the Syrian world to which the Jews belonged, a book was certainly not regarded as a mere mnemonic aid to human discourse. It was revered as the revealed word of God: a sacred object, in which every jot and tittle on the written page had a magical potency and therefore an immeasurable importance.”

Two Opinions of Illiteracy

The best way to understand a preliterate or illiterate culture may be to see it through the eyes of someone who has experienced life in both worlds. Jean Leung is a Chinese-American journalist whose mother grew up in China before girls from poor families were taught to read and write. She wrote about the ways that her illiterate mother coped with life in a modern society. Most adults in our society take literacy skills for granted. However, an illiterate person has to make countless adjustments and compensations to get by. Of herself, Leung wrote: “I bless the fact that my ability to read has brought so many new worlds to me ... and opened up my mind.”

How might life be in a literate society for someone who cannot read or write? “When was the last time you wrote out a list of things to do?,” Leung asked. “Now try to imagine being unable to use a written record to cue yourself. In the grocery store my mother does not zero in on certain items. Instead, she wanders through the aisles, relying on the displays to prompt her into remembering what she needs to buy. Picture organizing your life strictly on memory. My mother has had to break her life into routines. Sunrises are not just beautiful sights to my mother - they are her measurement of time. Every seventh sunrise means her granddaughter will be at church. The next brings another cycle. Since so much of an illiterate’s memory is used up by daily living, very little of it is free for conceptual thinking. Creativity becomes impaired. Every change in life takes up more of that precious memory. Illiterates are conservative, wary of any change that will have to be remembered. Moving the bus stop two blocks away may make it accessible to more people, but it is an irritant to my mother. The same with stores opening or closing.”

Martín Prechtel was once a Mayan shaman in Guatemala. In a book about his experiences, he described life in a village governed by oral culture and tradition. Prechtel’s perspective on literacy is reminiscent of the Egyptian king Thamus who argued that writing would “implant forgetfulness” in the soul. “Mayans,” wrote Prechtel, “know that people writing things down, not so much to remember them, but to ensure they don’t have to. This gives people a choice to remember things when they feel like it. But to the Tzutujil Maya ... to forget something sacred was to dishonor it. We didn’t want that choice, so nothing real was permitted to be committed to writing.”

As Mayan traditionalists saw the world, the Gods had created four other worlds before creating a fifth world, the Earth Fruit, which was a natural paradise where man lived. Each child born into the village passed through the separate layers of existence as a pair of deities, an Old Man and an Old Woman, assembled the parts of its existence, uttering magical words and phrases which “became the very things they described. The Gods spoke the world into life by continuously repeating their names.” This fifth world was “so delicious that they (the Gods) desire it. A spiritual contract between the people of the village and the Gods said that they would keep life coming to us if we promised to send them remembrance ... (By rituals, prayers, food, and creative works) we learned not to forget the Gods ... The Gods gave us life so that we could remember them, to keep them alive. The Gods of all layers ate remembrance ... A forgotten God was an angry God, or a dead God. In either case, the life sap would stop flowing, and all this life would be as if it never existed. We would cease. All our rituals in the village, whether personal or public, were memory feasts for the spirits. Being remembered was their food.”

Written language was a way of fixing knowledge permanently in the culture so that it need not be attended further. Remembrance of the Gods, on the other hand, required continual attendance, even as the God themselves created and sustained life “by repeating the sacred names of life over and over again.” So, Prechtel observed, an ancient culture such as the Mayan “has to be reinvented, reinvested annually by putting the tribe through the actual trials and experiences that their ancestors went through. The human being as a race was remade each year and infused with the stories and particular sounds that make it all live.” Unlike literate cultures of the West, “Mayan tradition is not concerned with progressing to a glorious future. The Gods had already achieved that, and we were living in it! We were concerned with maintaining a glorious present dedicated to feeding what gave us this life in a remembering way ... The House of the World, like our village huts and our human bodies, no matter how magnificent, is not built to last very long. Because of this, all life must be regularly renewed. To do this, the villagers come together once a year at least, to work on putting back together someone’s hut, talking, laughing, feasting, and helping wherever they can in a gradual, graceful way.”

Literacy and language are related to the type of society found in a land. Literate cultures attract a growing fund of knowledge which can be used to build machines and change the natural order. Numerical literacy makes it possible to keep track of private property. Warlords can build political empires. Such a society, exhibiting great power, is capable of civilized “progress”. If, however, the society is devoted to maintaining itself according to time-tested ways of divine spirit, then an oral culture forces people to participate actively in the rituals of remembrance. This communal task of remembering, which civilization regards as a waste of effort, gives meaning and purpose to life. So these “primitive” people become spiritually rich though their outward condition suggests backwardness. If progress is measured in lethal wars and degradation of the natural environment, then civilized people would do well to suspend judgment about which type of society is better. After Martín Prechtel left his Mayan village, 1,800 of its inhabitants were killed in the Guatemalan civil war. “Atitlán,” he wrote, “ is no longer the Belly Button of the World, but an overpopulated village of rival Christians struggling for food and money to buy things they never before knew they needed.”

Ideographic Writing

In his book Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma Somé describes the experience of moving between preliterate and literate cultures. As a small boy in west Africa, he had been taken from his parents to attend a school run by French priests. There he learned to read and write and become versed in European culture. While in school, Malidoma came to feel that “the capacity to carve visible speech was like an initiation into a secret practice ... The God from across the sea was a learned person who bequeathed literacy on his believers.” Returning to his native village as a teenager, Malidoma recognized that literacy had made him an alien among his own people. “People (in my village) understood my kind of literacy as the business of whites and nontribal people,” he explained. “Even worse, they understood literacy as an eviction of a soul from its body - the taking over of a body by another spirit ... To my people, to be literate meant to possessed by this devil of brutality ... The ability to read and write ... made the literate person the bearer of a terrible epidemic ... an alien form of magic.” Even so, the Dagara villagers asked Malidoma to write letters for them to friends living in distant cities.

For better or for worse, habits of literacy change the mind. While something is obviously gained, something else is given up. The mind becomes less keen in its immediate perceptions. With its tight grasp of abstractions, literate consciousness becomes ignorant or forgetful in other areas. One too much into this kind of thinking can become an “absentminded professor.” Plato admitted that the whole world mocks the philosopher because of “his ignorance in matters of daily life ... he is unaware what his next-door neighbor is doing ... the whole rabble will join the maid-servants in laughing at him, as from inexperience he walks blindly and stumbles into every pitfall. His terrible clumsiness makes him seem so stupid.” When book learning is pushed too hard upon children, their mental agility suffers. In India, observed a computer engineer from that country, “there is so much emphasis on academic prowess ... (that) by the time the kid reaches the fifth or sixth grade, his imagination is killed out of him.” The Chinese sage, Lao-tse, thought that learned men made poor heads of state because “the more acts of crafty dexterity men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear ... I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords.”

Yet, literacy also brings increased ability to organize information and make correct judgments about certain things. It gives a way to access the vast store of knowledge accumulated from the past and communicate that knowledge to others. From the beginning, the scribe has been a specialist in this technique of expressing thoughts through visual symbols. That was especially true when writing was ideographic. Ideographic writing was an occupation for professionals. Its type of script uses a unique symbol to represent each spoken word. Chinese writing, for instance, contains 45,000 different symbols, of which 9,000 or so are regularly used. Each symbol must be learned and remembered separately. While the human mind easily acquires a large spoken vocabulary, it may take a student several years of study to learn to write the same words. With alphabetic writing, on the other hand, written language is structured to follow speech. Only twenty-six letters are sufficient to represent all the vowel and consonant sounds in English. This brings a huge savings in memory and learning time.

Therefore, societies such as the ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, or Chinese, whose writing never advanced beyond the ideographic stage, tended to develop a class of professional scribes. Needing to be supported through an prolonged period of training, these scribes were attached to institutions which could afford to bear the expense. This kind of writing did not produce a reading public. Its purpose was to preserve knowledge, not to converse or amuse. A relatively small number of scribes employed written language to record information useful to political or religious bureaucracies. Sumerian scribes produced clay tablets recording commercial statistics such as the daily feeding of pigs, man-days of labor, land size, and grain receipts. Their cuneiform script was also used to record mathematical procedures, grammatical rules, lists of medical remedies, and other kinds of practical knowledge. No doubt, use of this cultural technology helped to coordinate public works such as the maintenance of irrigation ditches and canals. The Egyptian cult of the dead involved reciting daily prayers that would enable the dead Pharaoh and his followers to spring back to life. These charms were later written on the interior walls of the tombs so that, if the prayers were neglected, Pharaoh in death could recite the revivifying formulae himself.

Written language went hand in hand with the development of imperial government. Once political rulers controlled large and diverse populations, tribal customs no longer sufficed to maintain the social order. The monarch needed to rule through written laws. He needed records of tax collections. Scribes were needed to deliver messages to his commanders in battle or to regional administrators. Ideographic writing, while difficult to master, had the advantage of providing a common written language for nations such as China which include people of many dialects. Literati from all parts of the empire who could not understand each other’s speech could communicate through writing. The Chinese nation could possess a common written culture. A disadvantage was that, because literate persons enjoyed a monopoly over the written-down knowledge, there tended to be an abusive accumulation of power in the hands of scribes, priests, and royal administrators. The Mandarin class attached to the Chinese imperial court took power away from the more ancient class of aristocrats. Trained in the Confucian classics, these scholars shamelessly rigged the affairs of government to their own advantage. Many became hereditary landowners who exploited the peasantry by collecting excessive rents.

How Alphabetic Writing Might Have Inspired Advancements in Philosophy and Religion

Alphabetic writing was invented by Semitic peoples in the 2nd millennium B.C. Some believe that it was derived from Egyptian demotic writing, a priestly shorthand. The Kenite people who lived on the outskirts of Egyptian society in the Sinai peninsula may have been first to use it. In the book of Exodus they are called “Midianites”. Moses lived among them for a number of years. The peoples of Canaan and Phoenicia had fully developed alphabets (minus letters representing the vowels) perhaps as early as the time of the Hebrew patriarchs. An alphabetic script was widely used in David’s kingdom, around 1000 B.C. The Phoenician alphabet was later copied by the Greeks, who added letters for vowel sounds. The literature that was produced in Judaea and Greece in those years had a major impact upon western culture. “The five or six hundred years that followed the transfer of the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians to the Greeks was one of the most creative periods in man’s existence,” wrote Robert Logan in The Alphabet Effect. “ Within this short period there appeared many of the elements of Western civilization - abstract science, formal logic, axiomatic geometry, rational philosophy, and representational art.”

Unlike its ideographic predecessor, alphabetic writing was a script for practical persons such as merchants. They were men of quick intelligence who had seen much of the world. Anyone could figure out the meaning of words from the sounds of a relatively small number of letters. The relative ease of learning alphabetic script meant that its use was not limited to professional scribes. The alphabet became a force for democratizing knowledge. In India, for instance, Brahmin priests had turned themselves into a privileged class through their control of memorized rituals. A semi-alphabetic script, Brahmi, was introduced there during a period of commercial contact with mideastern peoples in the 7th century B.C. The religious revolution that took place in India during the 6th century B.C. represented a protest against the elaborate rituals and sacrifices controlled by the priests. Both Buddha and Mahavira offered salvation through personal enlightenment to all persons, regardless of birth, who were devoted to following the way of truth.

Western religion was likewise transformed when alphabetic literacy came to the Hebrew people. Moses might have acquired this skill during his years of royal upbringing in Egypt or his sojourn among the Midianite people. After leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, he brought to them a set of tablets upon which God’s moral instructions had been inscribed. The “Ten Commandments” were a core of written law for the Hebrew nation. Its people acquired the conception of God as an abstract or spiritual being rather than a graven image. God was a being known primarily through scripture. He was a character in a story who had personally spoken with the Patriarchs and with Moses. Now this same God had become the author of written laws. Because the Hebrews were among the first people to acquire the skill of writing, they developed a sense of cultural and moral superiority. In Deuteronomy 17, God instructed future kings of Israel “not (to) acquire many wives ... (nor) acquire great quantities of silver and gold” as other nations’ kings did. Instead, “he ( king of Israel) shall make a copy of this law in a book ... He shall keep it by him and read from it all his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God.”

Christianity and Islam were also scripturally based. Jesus’ earthly career was the product of a tradition associated with Jewish religious writers. His Messianic mission derived from that script. So literature and life were engaged in a dialogue that shaped future history. A dramatic moment occurred when Jesus read a scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth upon which Isaiah’s prophecy was written concerning the year of the Lord’s favor. He then made this statement: “Today, in your very hearing, this text has come true.” (Luke 4:18-21) While Jesus himself left no written works, the Gospel writers pieced together a narrative of his sayings and activities in a hauntingly beautiful piece of literature. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is personified as God’s “Word” or the preexistent Logos underlying cosmic order and purpose. Public readings from the Bible continue to be an important part of Christian worship.

The Islamic religion began with a sense of ethnic inferiority because the Arabs were an illiterate people. It represented an attempt to bring Arabic religion up to the cultural level of the Christian and Jewish religions. The prophet Mohammed, then an illiterate merchant, received his first revelation at the age of forty. One night, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream issuing a command: “Read”. Mohammed protested “I am no reader”. Gabriel then repeated: “Read in the name of the Lord who created man of blood coagulated. Read! Thy Lord is the most beneficent who taught by the Pen.” After further commands, the angel dictated to Mohammed over a period of years the divine message which has been recorded in the Koran. By tradition, the Koran was a transcription or copy of a tablet in Heaven. Someone else might have written it down on palm leaves as Mohammed recited the words from ecstatic visions. But Mohammed, from his travels, was familiar with the content of Biblical scriptures. He honored Jews and Christians as “peoples of the book”. Significantly, many of Mohammed’s early followers were students of Harb, who had popularized writing among the Quraysh aristocracy in Mecca. The Koran itself brought literacy to the Arabs.

So much of the world’s important religious literature was produced in a period of transition between oral and written cultures. As the Koran originated in a society newly exposed to writing, so too the philosophical revolution that took place in the middle part of the first millennium B.C. reflects the fresh onslaught of alphabetic scripts. The first Hebrew literature was produced at the beginning of the millennium. Then, a few centuries later, came Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Pythagoras, Socrates, and other great thinkers of that age. No other historical period has produced such an intense concentration of philosophically inspired persons. With the exception of Confucius, they all lived in a place and time when alphabetic writing was being introduced to society. Despite differences in their teaching, the great philosophers and religious thinkers who then lived shared a common view in the value that they attached to goodness and truth. They placed moral virtue above worldly power. The written word was yet a novelty and so were these ideas.

From a western perspective, Plato was the central figure in this intellectual movement. For all their variety, Plato’s philosophical insights boiled down to a single idea: it was the idea of an idea. Plato studied ideas as if they were things. He sought to know the nature of their being. Plato perceived that ideas, as opposed to natural objects, had a special kind of being. They were universal and imperishable beings of an unmixed quality. Over the years, Plato’s philosophy has taken on mysterious meanings. Platonic forms seem to float somewhere above the world, eternally present though absent and unseen. It is possible to take a simpler view of the matter. An idea, or a Platonic form, is simply a word. The form or idea of justice is what the word “justice” means. In one respect, of course, a word is a visual symbol. Plato was not concerned with the word’s physical appearance as much as its reference to something else. In the Dialogues, Socrates was often probing the meaning of words, seeking a true definition. “What is justice?”, “What is courage?”, he would ask. The answerer would cite instances of justice or courage, as if to suggest a pattern. It was the being of that pattern which most interested Plato. The pattern was an abstract idea which the word expressed.

Keep in mind that Greek society, in contrast to Judaic society, had been literate for a relatively short time when these inquiries were made. One can see how a preoccupation with ideas such as Plato’s might have arisen in a society that had recently become literate. Written words, being novelties, were objects of curiosity. Greek thinkers for some time had been asking philosophical questions about nature. They had been inquiring what was the basic “stuff” of which the world was made. It was understandable, then, that someone like Socrates might turn his attention to words and ask about the nature of their being. Of course, words had been around for a long time as a part of spoken language. Why did not philosophers study them as elements of speech? The answer may lie in the fact that it is not as convenient to examine spoken words as it is written ones. Words, once spoken, vanish from the scene. They are gone the moment they are uttered, leaving only an aural impression upon memory. Words written on paper or carved in stone have a more palpable existence. They seem to be like physical objects. These words stay in place long enough that a person can examine them. They have durability. Since these written words appear to be fixed objects, a philosopher might ask: “What kind of thing is this?”

Alphabetic writing increased the general level of literacy in the society so that intellectually active and curious persons from many walks of life became exposed to written language. There was a clash of viewpoints not found in temple environments. In addition, the alphabet encouraged analytical thinking because, to convert speech phonetically into writing, one must identify the successive sounds, associate each with a letter, and recombine them into words. Logan has observed that “the constant repetition of the process of phonemic analysis of a spoken words, every time it is written in an alphabetic form, subliminally promotes the skills of analysis and matching that are critical for the development of scientific and logical thinking.” Also, “the linking together of ... letters to form words provided a model for the linking together of ideas to form a logical argument.” Freed of the need to follow a poetic story line to express knowledge, prose writings could follow the flow of logical arguments. For purposes of classification, the letters of the alphabet in their conventional sequence allowed words to be conveniently sorted, which is a requirement of dictionaries and other reference materials. Writings on paper presented detached and objective expressions which were impartially available to readers.

Printing and the Individual Author

The technology of printing came to Europe in the 15th century A.D. as a result of two inventions that had originated in China. One was cheap paper, and the other movable type. The Europeans were able to exploit this technology more effectively than the Chinese because their written languages were based on the alphabetic system. The small number of alphabetic letters in their script made it economical to mass-produce and reuse the type fonts created for each letter. Initially, printers did what the manuscript copyists had done, except more cheaply. Their cheaper production costs allowed them to undercut the copyists on price. Printing was, therefore, a threat to their employment. Because numerous printed sheets were produced from the same plate, printers had an incentive to check the texts more closely. Aldus Manutius, an Italian publisher of the late 15th century, hired scholars to check manuscripts for his pocket-sized editions of classical writings. He also employed proofreaders. Printers could afford to prepare the textual materials with some care. This new capability reinforced the inclination of Renaissance scholars to maintain the integrity of original texts.

Chinese literature was less amenable to printing by movable type. Initially, it was printed in a solid page. The ideographic nature of the writing called for skilled penmanship. Calligraphy became an art form by which individual writers might distinguish themselves. Stone tablets housed in a Confucian temple at Xi’an exhibit writings of several well-known scholars. The stone carvings, transcribed from paper, display different calligraphic styles. Writers have imitated these models over the years. The steles thus served to standardize writing in a pre-typographic culture. Printing downgrades the calligraphic aspect of individual writing. Its fonts present standardized scripts in a nearly perfect form. The words appear in a uniform style and are evenly spaced within the lines. The vertical margins are straight. Paragraphs are indented. Serifs at the top and bottom of letters carry the eye horizontally across the page. All is arranged visually to afford quick and comfortable reading. Previously, it was customary to read written manuscripts aloud to increase their comprehensibility. Printed literature permits silent reading. Scholars can work more efficiently.

Printing has brought an advancement in standardizing languages. Printed dictionaries exhibit the proper spellings and meanings of words. Literature has become an expression of national culture. With a growing tendency for authors to write in vernacular tongues, the different European languages each acquired a body of literature which helped to stabilize the language. Printing also served to increase and diffuse scientific knowledge. It fostered a fragmented, classified, more carefully analyzed view of the world. Regularly published journals speeded up the process of exchanging scientific information. The greater care in preparing printed texts suited the scientists’ need to observe nature carefully and report their observations in meticulous detail. Printed literature helped to preserve knowledge by spreading it to a wider audience. Publication in quantity meant that a work would never be lost. As books became more plentiful, scholars no longer had to wander about between scattered locations to find them. Freed of the task of copying manuscripts, they could devote their time to pursuits of greater scholarly worth.

Before printing, people did not even know the year in which they were living. Books were so valuable that they were chained to desks. Cheap printed literature liberated humanity from ignorance and uniformity of thought. Not just wealthy people or clerics had access to books. Where the manuscript culture had largely been confined to monasteries, universities, and royal courts, printing was pitched at a broader audience. Anyone who could read might purchase its product. No longer needing a patron for financial support, a publisher could stay in business as long as he could sell the merchandise profitably. The market would support books of many kinds. Printing reinforced the contemporaneous trend of making literature available to people in their own tongue. That gave a boost to self-education. Prospective scholars no longer had to learn a second language (Latin) before reading scholarly materials. Printed books spurred a demand for universal education. Printed newspapers spread information about current events through the community. An educated and informed citizenry was in a better position to defend its rights against abusive government. A further consequence of the printing revolution was the rise of parliamentary government and democracy, in which public opinion has played a critical role.

In Roman society, the aristocratic class had benefited from the lack of public literacy. The rich could afford private messengers or correspondents to carry letters to each other. Often cheated in dealings with them, the common people demanded that the Twelve Laws of Rome be written down. Julius Caesar, who was a champion of the poor, posted the proceedings of the Roman Senate on the Senate door. Due to a lack of open communications, the Greek and Roman experiments with democracy failed. Democratic government succeeded in post-Renaissance Europe because printed literature had produced an informed public. There were now communications media through which popular sentiments could be effectively expressed. Both religious and political leaders reacted negatively to their threatened loss of authority. Filippo di Strata tried to persuade the Venetian Senate to outlaw printing. “The press is a whore, the pen is a virgin,” he exclaimed. Though kings and bishops tried to censor subversive writings, it was a losing battle. Illegal print shops sprang up ready to supply what people wanted. Eventually, the authorities were forced to hire their own writers and printers to court public opinion.

As Buddhism armed with alphabetic script had once challenged the Hindu caste system, so the Protestant Reformation used printed literature to challenge the authority of the Roman church. The medieval church exercised worldly power by controlling the Christian sacraments which were believed necessary for personal salvation. Its teachings were transmitted to individual worshipers through oral formulae recited during the Mass. The Bible itself was written in Latin. When pre-Reformation reformers such as John Wycliffe and John Huss translated the Bible into popular tongues, the church condemned them as heretics. The invention of printing gave another Biblical translator, Martin Luther, a more powerful position from which to challenge church authority. Within a month, all of Europe had heard of his posting the “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg castle church. Luther and his supporters flooded Europe with printed religious propaganda. Printing made it possible for each believer to own a Bible written in his own language. The Protestants encouraged believers to base their faith upon scriptures which they themselves had read rather than upon sacraments of the church. Religion became a matter of individual conscience and belief.

In a philosophical age, people reckon by means of generalities. Generalities are such that a single concept covers many situations. This allows a certain economy to be achieved in the use of memory. Writings on paper hold diverse elements together by the physical unity of the paper itself. A checklist, for instance, reminds one of all the different steps to be taken though they may have no inherent relationship to each other. It gives an artificial unity to those elements by virtue of inclusion on the same piece of paper. Their association does not need to be remembered. Printed literature holds structures of words together in this way. Their unity is found in the authorship of the writing. Because of the extra care taken in preparing and reproducing printed texts, one can be sure that they faithfully represent what the author actually wrote. This becomes important in the modern cult of the author. We see authors as creative persons who exhibit unique insight in their choice of words and themes to express a certain vision of the world. They have an artistic talent manifested in the intricacies and nuances of their expression which is called personal style. If the exact structure of words could not be preserved on paper, it would serve no purpose to value such things.

During the Middle Ages, authorship was unimportant. Medieval writers borrowed freely from each other. Manuscript copying was a communal work in which the writers not only copied other people’s writings but added to them. There was little attempt to identify the authors or titles of written works. In a tradition dating back to Babylon, manuscripts were identified by the opening words of the text. Printing brought greater attention to authors. Books began to have title pages which disclosed the authors’ names. Copyright laws established a proprietary interest in written works. Plagiarism, or copying and publishing someone else’s writings without attribution, became a legal concern. Because print technology made it possible to preserve texts with unprecedented fidelity, an author’s unique manner of expression gained recognition within the culture. The words of poems would be quoted exactly as the poet had written them. Because their personal creative expressions were considered to be valuable, writers and musicians became heroes of the age. It would not have been possible to have a cult of the author if an author’s words were regularly garbled or copied imperfectly.

However, the tradition of communal writing has continued in what may be the most important product of the print culture: newspapers. These began with individual correspondence as when one person writes another a letter narrating personal events. Letters of more general interest became the basis of newsletters. Soon a clientele of interested persons awaited the communication. The technology of printing made it economical to produce a large number of copies. Soon general newsletters or newspapers appeared. The English journalists, Addison and Steele, developed a new style of writing in their weekly publication, Tatler and Spectator, which is called equitone. This means maintaining a single perspective and tone throughout the newspaper. The individual journalists all wrote in the same crisp and objective way. When enough readers were attracted to these publications, it became possible to persuade businesses to place advertisements. And that, in turn, has revolutionized the art of selling commercial products. Printing created the space for a new kind of public experience to take place.

Impact of the Electronic Image

The epoch of electronic communication embraces a group of cultural technologies which have as their object recording or transmitting sensuous images. It may be helpful to put them into three categories based on their periods of invention. The photograph and the telegraph, invented during the 1830s and 1840s, came in the first wave. Three devices invented during the 1870s - the phonograph, motion-picture machine, and telephone - represent the second wave of inventions. Thomas Edison is associated with them. Finally, in the third wave, radio and television were developed during the first four decades of the 20th century. Certain inventions - photography, motion pictures, and television - pertain to the sense of sight, while the phonograph, telephone, and radio pertain to hearing. The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television communicate messages or images over long distances. Photography and telegraphy predate the electronic technologies, but we put them here with the other inventions because of their similar nature.

While printed literature had long included woodcut or blockprint illustrations, photography broke into the new business of producing sensuous images by machine. The process of photoengraving, which converted photographic images into etchings on a metal plate, began to be used in the 1880s to reproduce these images in newspapers. Newspaper pictures were especially popular with immigrant groups who did not speak English well. The related technologies of lithography and chromolithography, introduced earlier, added another pictorial element to the print culture. Telegraphy led to national and international news reporting. If one examines newspapers of Civil War vintage, one finds that many articles consist of telegraphed dispatches from the battlefront. Taken in combination with printed newspapers, these two first-wave inventions were well suited for conveying exotic images and reports from distant places. The urban masses could be entertained by pictures and descriptive texts concerning life in the Wild West, or in equatorial Africa, or in European high society.

Because portrait and landscape painting belonged to a prestigious tradition, the early photographers sometimes touched up their works to make them appear more artistic. This attempt to imitate painting gave way to a new school of natural photography about the time of World War I. Ironically, the camera’s superior ability to produce visual images won over some of its human competitors. The “Impressionist” school of painting popular in France and other countries at the turn of the century abandoned Renaissance ideals of form and shape. Its vision was instead expressed in discontinuous dabs of color. “He is only an eye - but what an eye!”, they said of Claude Monet. Monet’s technique, like the camera’s, was to let rays of colored light strike the canvas where they would and not try to express forms. So, in general, the artistic culture that emerged in the early part of the 20th century was disconnected and disjointed. It was lacking in a sense of traditional harmony.

When we come to the second wave of cultural inventions, motion is added to pictures. Sound recordings trace the vibrations of music or of the human voice as projected through time. The human voice makes a powerful cultural impression. Combined with music, it produces a mysterious and profound emotional effect. Edison’s phonograph and motion-picture machine were first to capture human personality in this expressive mode. As printing had captured and preserved a writer’s selection of words, so the technologies of sound recording and motion pictures were able to record and preserve a performer’s voice and visual appearance. The public began to track personality as it came across in sensuous ways. The individual performers, with their unique personalities, became cultural commodities. Soon sound recordings were purchased not because the music was written by a famous composer but because the singer was in demand. Once film audiences were exposed to the actors’ visual images, a star system developed in Hollywood. If there had not been a medium to capture the performers’ sensuous qualities, the writers and composers would have remained the chief objects of attention and acclaim.

While it merely transmitted words in coded form, the electric telegraph was the first technology to offer instantaneous communication between distant places. With overhead wires running along railroad tracks, it improved the process of train dispatching. The tighter train schedules dictated that standard time zones be established in different parts of the United States. The telegraph allowed quicker business dealings between goods wholesalers located in large cities and retailers dispersed to rural areas. Previously those retailers had to make periodic trips to the city to place orders for goods. George Orwell claimed that the telegraph contributed to the growth of bureaucracy because provincial administrators, no longer free to make their own decisions, had to check everything with headquarters. Britain’s empire builders were reduced to clerks by this device.

When the telephone came along, individuals at home could communicate instantaneously with friends and neighbors. They had quick access to police and fire protection. This new household device eased the social isolation of women, especially those living in rural areas. Some objected to its invasion of privacy. Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote a letter complaining about the wisdom of admitting “this interesting instrument ... into our bed and board ... bleating like a deserted infant.” However, most people seemed to like the social convenience. The telephone sat quietly on a table until its moment of use, disturbing the peace only when an acquaintance wished to talk. Lately, however, the availability of cell phones, voice mail, answering machines, and other accessories have made it possible for individuals to take calls no matter where they may be. Some have complained of lifestyles dominated by “an endless stream of phone calls about insignificant nonsense.” This has disrupted the rhythm of activity and quiet which human beings may need to maintain their sanity.

Radio and television, in the third wave of cultural invention, combine long-distance communication with images of sight and sound extended in time. Because air time is precious, they typically deliver a carefully considered message to their vast and scattered audience. Commercial advertising makes it possible to offer this service for free. Network broadcasting created a new national culture. The radio became the family clock; living routines were rearranged to make time for favorite programs. Radio brought a sense of community to the broadcast area. National broadcasts undermined regional dialects in bringing a familiar voice into millions of households. When television burst upon the scene in the 1950s, a visual component was added. At first, its promoters claimed that television would bring families together because the viewers might entertain themselves at home. Then it was said that this medium had great educational potential. Soon enough, it became clear that television was mainly a powerful seller of commercial products. Television created brand-name images that made people want to purchase the advertised products in stores.

The small desert community of Essex, California, illustrates how life changes when people move into the television age. Until 1977, Essex was beyond the range of television signals. Then someone donated a cable device which allowed Essex residents to receive programming from a station in Phoenix, Arizona. Before the cable hookup, people in Essex entertained themselves with “books, games, neighborly visits, Wednesday night square dances (and) Thursday night movies at the school house.” Afterwards, town people read fewer books and magazines. They scheduled their work around television programs. The Thursday night movies were discontinued. Teenagers instead became aware of big-city fads. Where they had once looked up to outdoor types such as park rangers, kids now idolized television and rock stars. Some girls, deciding against early marriage, thought they might wish to pursue professional careers like the female lawyers and executives they saw on television. While Essex residents disliked the brassy commercials, television proved to be a powerful force in persuading them to buy products. A woman remarked: “ I just had to see if the Ball Park franks really popped ... and I’m trying to think of an excuse to go to Phoenix so I can eat at one of those restaurants I see on television with the sizzling steaks.”

Because they provide high-quality or, at least, highly popular entertainment to people without charge, radio and television, especially television, offer something like an ultimate cultural experience. Their performances become immediately available in the comfort and privacy of one’s home whenever one wants them. It is seductively easy to use these devices - just flick on the power switch and turn to a station. Many people depend on this entertainment to get through the day. (The only apparent disadvantage is having to endure the commercials and adhere to a time schedule when the programs are aired. For the determined consumer, tape recorders or VCRs can overcome these obstacles.) Statistics show that television sets are on for an average of seven hours a day in U.S. households. Watching television can therefore take up a large portion of the waking time available in a person’s life not otherwise reserved. Television programs can become a kind of life substitute. Educators worry that prolonged television viewing may undermine children’s literacy skills. It may cause adults to discontinue book reading as a recreational pastime, fostering an unimaginative, flaccid state of mind.

Media experts point out that television induces a trace-like condition in viewers. The eye has to defocus a bit to transform the flashing lines into coherent images. This relaxes some people and puts them into a state of pleasurable passivity. In other words, it turns them into “couch potatoes”. Radio drama, at least, required some viewer participation in imagining characters and events. Television provides both the aural and visual components of experience. The viewer seems to be staring through a 25-inch peephole at someone else’s life. This type of experience does not require periods of mental concentration as book reading does. It fosters a short attention span. A study found that television shows, including the commercials, required 39 attention shifts in thirty minutes. Television newscasters learn to break things up with frequent humor. One might question the wisdom of gaining life experiences vicariously. Though the concept of television is routinely trashed, many people continue watching it. One might say, paraphrasing Churchill, that television is the worst form of entertainment except for the other kinds.

A Clash of Political Messages

In the 1920s, European society was becoming acquainted with new technologies which extended the human voice such as radio broadcasting. One who used them quite effectively for political purposes was Adolf Hitler. He built up a large following by delivering impassioned, hate-filled speeches in rented halls. Later, Hitler’s message was distributed to even larger audiences through radio broadcasts and propagandistic films. Hitler insisted that the spoken word was superior to the written word in molding popular opinion. Leon Trotsky later took up the other side of the argument. A Russian Jew who had played a key role in the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky stressed the role of Marxist literature in winning over the masses to the communist cause.

Hitler’s contention was that, while printed literature enjoyed cultural prestige, it was worthless in terms of persuading masses of people. “(A)ll great, world-shaking events have been brought about, not by written matter, but by the spoken word,” he wrote. “Many will more readily accept a pictorial presentation than read an article of any length.” Public speaking was more effective than written arguments because “the speaker gets a continuous correction of his speech from the crowd ... A speaker can read from the facial expression of his audience whether they understand what he is saying ... (and) ... to what extent he has convinced them.” A writer, on the other hand, “does not know his audience at all ... (so he keeps) his arguments entirely general ... (and in the process) loses psychological subtlety.” The political success of Bolshevism would appear to be an exception, Hitler conceded. “What gives Marxism its astonishing power over the great masses is by no means the formal written work of the Jewish intellectual world, but rather the enormous oratorical propaganda wave which took possession of the masses ... The Marxist press is written by agitators.”

One of those Marxist agitators, Leon Trotsky, disagreed. “Hitler’s judgment is doubtless determined in large measure by the fact that he cannot write,” he observed. “Marx and Engels acquired millions of followers without resorting throughout their life to the art of oratory ... An orator does not generate writers. On the contrary, a great writer may inspire thousands of orators ... Lenin became the head of a powerful and influential party before he had the opportunity to turn to the masses with the living word ... As a mass orator Lenin did not appear on the scene until 1917, and then only for a short period ... He came to power not as an orator, but above all as a writer, as an instructor of the propagandists who had trained his cadres, including also the cadres of orators.”

In fact, Lenin considered motion pictures to be the most powerful medium so he nationalized the Russian film industry. After World War II, American communists tried to infiltrate Hollywood but were opposed by the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. A former newspaper editor (as was Karl Marx), Lenin saw radio as “a newspaper without paper and without boundaries.” He did not appreciate its new capabilities. Because of their preoccupation with cinema, the Soviet leaders let the Russian radio industry develop largely without state interference until the late 1920s. The Nazis, on the other hand, made radio a prime vehicle for political propaganda. Radio sets sold in Germany could only receive two stations. In Britain and the United States, political influence in radio broadcasting was minimal. Franklin D. Roosevelt used radio effectively in his “fireside chats” with the American people. U.S. Presidents have addressed the nation on radio and television during national emergencies. Lord Reith, founder of the British Broadcasting System, believed that the purpose of radio was to promote education and moral improvement. Radio, he said, was “a servant of culture.” In the United States, it was used mostly for entertainment.

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in the late 1870s, he considered it to be a “telephone repeater”. In other words, it would record in permanent form what was said over the telephone. Those 19th Century types who encountered electric or electronic communication devices for the first time tended to foresee practical uses for them. They thought in terms of scientific or business applications. Entertainment, however, best utilized the capabilities of these new media. “Failure to foresee the phonograph as a means of entertainment was really a failure to grasp the electric revolution in general,” wrote Marshall McLuhan. “In our time we are reconciled to the phonograph as a toy and solace; but press, radio, and TV have also acquired the same dimension of entertainment. Meanwhile, entertainment pushed to an extreme becomes the main form of business and politics.” The market-driven radio and television industries in the United States moved quickly in the direction of popular entertainment. The electronic media were allowed to fulfill their innate possibilities.

In contrast, Soviet society was under the thumb of a dictatorship which lived by past ideals. For the most part, this society stuck to a literate culture that was quite recognizable in terms of 19th century styles and themes. While western society was veering off from that course into popular entertainment, Soviet writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and poets continued to create and perform in traditional ways. The Soviet leaders were stiff and unsmiling individuals who read lengthy speeches at the party Congresses. Television newscasts gave the appearance of being informational briefings. There was none of the personal sensuality and lightheartedness that western media types displayed. In 1994, the Wall Street Journal half-humorously reported that Soviet editors of a computer magazine had rejected some advertisements from U.S. firms on the grounds that the proposed copy “did not contain enough technical information for their readers.” These editors were following an honest but, to western tastes, quaint notion of what commercial advertising ought to be. They were still selling the steak rather than its sizzle.

When change came in 1989, it was not ideology but electronic culture which overcame the Soviet system. Commentators have pointed out that eastern European cities within range of western television stations - Leipzig in East Germany and Timisoara in Romania - were early hotbeds of resistance to communist political regimes. Popular opinion followed a simple principle of television advertising: I see it; therefore, I want it. Peoples in the East wanted the various things that they saw on western television. The Soviet society was also relaxing somewhat. Films like Little Vera openly mocked communism. Mikhail Gorbachev and his stylish wife, Raisa, appeared to be more like a western political couple than their predecessors. Western-style rock groups were becoming active in East bloc nations. The pro-democracy movement in Mongolia started with a rock n’ roll song by a two-man band called “Honk” which criticized the state bureaucracy. Soviet television helped to foment rebellion by reporting rebellious incidents in eastern Europe. Fax machines, photocopiers, and Internet connections also spread the word. Ronald Reagan said of communism’s fall: “Our computer technology left them bewildered and behind, paper societies in an electronic age.”

The New Ideal of Rhythm

“Sell the sizzle, not the steak” is a well-known adage of the modern advertising age - a lesson which the Soviet computer-magazine editors did not comprehend. To sell sizzle involves a different kind of persuasion than in the traditional sense; for there are two kinds. One type of persuasion speaks to the intellect, setting up fact to meet fact, argument to overcome argument. Its procedure establishes truth which persuades the listener because he recognizes its universal claims. (This is selling the steak.) The other type speaks directly to a person. It is less a set of arguments than an enchanted vision which persuades by motion and sight. This type of persuasion sets forth an inviting dance which makes the viewer want to forget himself and join in. It lays out a rhythmic movement in which he finds a place to submerge himself. (This is selling the sizzle.) The culture of printed literature persuades by the first method; the culture of electronic media, by the second.

Society’s values traditionally have come from philosophers and religious teachers who present concepts such as goodness and truth. The goal is to conform as much as possible to those ideals. While doing so, it is important to be steadfast in character, for goodness is often defined in the breach. A righteous person is a person without sin, who has held to the straight and narrow his whole life through. In the new culture, which developed through the electronic media, constancy of character does not matter so much. The emphasis is upon making a good performance while one is on camera. What happens off camera is of less concern. The singer wants to be up for the performance. So does the athlete who is preparing for an important game. The performance will require skills that have been developed as habits to support a particular set of motions. However, one’s mental attitude going into the performance also makes a big difference as to whether or not it goes well.

When athletes play well, they sometimes say that they were “in the groove” or “in the zone”. We will say that these peak performers have “rhythm”. Rhythm is the graceful quality found in beautiful music. It is the magic in a tennis game where everything has “clicked”. Television talk-show hosts who are sparkling with wit and have rapport with their guests exemplify rhythm, as do comedians when telling their best jokes. The performance of rhythm is a strictly personal matter. Some have it and some do not. Some are able to deliver rhythm on cue. Some are not. By and large, the electronic media are in the business of furnishing rhythmic personalities to the public, whether in music, sports, conversation, or comic performance. They want persons who can deliver this elusive element; and, for the person who can, they pay well.

The old book culture maintained that knowledge was the key to performance. If a person correctly understood the principles of something, he could apply them to achieve the desired result. Rhythm seems to operate by a different mechanism. Even if a concert musician knows the music thoroughly, he can never be sure of giving a good performance when he goes out on stage. Because giving an excellent performance is important yet is essentially uncontrollable, many performers develop “stage fright”. With knowledge, one can study something until it is learned. With writing, one can mull words over for a long time until the right one comes to mind. But when one must deliver rhythmic performance to a live audience or on network television, one has only a single chance to perform. That puts immense pressure on the performer. When he or she rises to the occasion, audiences know it. They appreciate what has been accomplished.

The old philosophical culture held that will power was the key to successful execution. Mind needed to discipline the body to behave in a certain way. Will was a matter of strengthening one’s resolve. It was a matter of applying mental perseverance over time. Rhythm, however, cannot be achieved by willful effort. The performer will often choke if he tries to improve a performance by tightening up or consciously forcing a correct routine. Rhythmic performance is more a matter of trusting one’s instincts and letting go. Some performers use drugs or alcohol to relieve their inhibitions and loosen up. Some employ a small beginning ritual. Prior visualization of the routine helps to put many performers in a mood to perform well without thinking. Coaches and sports psychologists can help with this aspect of the sport. The athlete himself should not have to think about what he is doing, just perform. His mind, ideally, should be blank.

Rhythm does not come in a steady state of high performance, but in periods of intense effort followed by relaxation. Unlike steadfast virtues, rhythm involves a controlled flow of energy over a period of time. The hard part is usually the beginning. Once the energy flow has started in the right way, rhythm can be maintained seemingly without effort. Indeed, effortless activity is an important characteristic of performance in this mode. Rhythmic performance is natural and easy. But sometimes it will not come, no matter what a person does. As they say in show business: “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not.” Rhythm has its ups and downs. That is what makes rhythm so different than the beautiful works of literate culture. The kind of perfection that is found in the classics of literature and art may be too brittle for live performance. Rhythm needs a certain looseness to develop. So this idea of rigorous perfection has largely disappeared from the culture of electronic recording and communication. They say it’s better to be lucky than good.

Computer Links

While the full extent of computer technology is yet to be revealed, we do know that this medium offers a new way of organizing and presenting information. With printed literature, a person starts reading at the beginning of a text, continues through the text in a fixed order, and finally reaches the end. The author determines the sequence by which the reader becomes aware of the materials. Whatever information the text contains will be exposed in a prearranged sequence, presumably designed for maximum intelligibility. Except for occasional flipping of pages back and forth to indulge idle thoughts, the reader sticks to the course set out in the script. The same is true of electronic recordings. The creative artist presents a series of images that flow in a certain order, broken only by the ability to fast-forward or reverse tapes. Computer menus, on the other hand, offer several options for moving to the next place. One clicks on an icon that seems interesting and is transported immediately to a new field of information. The viewer decides where to go next. This utter freedom to choose the path for viewing information within a system represents a departure from sequentially-based methods of exposing knowledge.

Theodor H. Nelson coined the word “hypertext” for expressions that allow persons to read nonsequentially as suits their own purposes. Reading in hypertext is based on associative rather than sequential thinking. Nodes and links, which are points of connection between related elements, form a bridge between different portions of text. It is like following the allusions to Homer, Dante, or another author in John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the computer lets readers call up the referenced texts electronically by clicking on icons. This arrangement suits readers who wish to browse casually through texts as well as those who want to find particular information without reading through a lengthy text. There is an artistry in designing a system to connect the different files and an art to navigating effectively in these informational waters.

The Greek philosophers discovered the concept of generality which links abstractions with specifics. Hypertext can place texts in a similar relationship to each other. Menu-linked layers of text let readers progress from general discussions to specific ones. The more general discussion would cover an entire field of knowledge, while, at various points, electronic links would connect readers to more detailed presentations of the same subject. World history, too, is suited to this type of treatment. A short overview of historical events might be connected to a much larger collection of writings that expand upon each incident or topic. Ultimately, historical writings lead to stories of individual lives which affected events on those “higher” levels. Newspapers make use of hypertext to provide supplemental information relating to the published articles. Scientific reports can also be organized in this way. One can foresee the construction of enormous electronic encyclopedias whose texts embrace the bulk of human knowledge. They might be, for the computer civilization, like the great pyramids of Gizah.

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 8 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

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