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Chapter One: How Cultural Ideals Change with Changing Cultural Technologies


People today are aware of a generation gap, which is not the 1960s’ gap of rebellious youth but one having to do with cultural technologies. While the old generation is focused on book learning, their children take to pop culture. Young people show amazing skill in playing video games. Their knowledge of musical recording, TV and film personalities is awesome. Some have parlayed their ability to work with computers into careers on the cutting edge of tech-centered business. The old throw up their hands and bemoan the decline of “civilization” because literacy skills seem to have suffered. This may not be the decline of civilization itself but the replacement of one civilization with another.

Civilizations can change even if societies are stable. The essential quality or nature of a civilization is a mode of consciousness linked to a technology, such as writing, which creates a certain public space. Religion in a broad sense defines its “soul” . Sometimes (as at present) civilizations change when political and social structures do not. Sometimes (as when the Rome fell) civilizations survive changing societies. This book will be concerned with the shift in values that has taken place between the print culture and the culture of electronics-based entertainment. It will also be concerned with the communication technologies that have supported each set of ideals.

New communication technologies

Going back at least five thousand years, the original cultural shift took place when civilized societies first appeared. This happened first in scattered city-states of the Sumerian heartland, also called Mesopotamia, and shortly afterwards in Egypt. The Chinese, Indian, and Mayan peoples went through the same process at various times later. The invention of writing accompanied the rise of urban society. Before this, human cultures were based upon the spoken word. Knowledge had to be remembered, personally and collectively, to become part of the culture. Tribal elders passed along oral folklore to the new generations which they had learned from their own forebears. With writing came an independent method of remembering such things. The markings in baked clay or stone would survive the persons who had inscribed them. So long as someone knew how to interpret the symbols, their knowledge would remain alive.

That was the first great cultural divide: between literacy and remembered speech. The second came when primitive (ideographic) writing gave way to the use of alphabetic symbols. Although alphabetic writing first appeared in the Middle East during the second millennium B.C., it was not until the following millennium that this type of script became widely used. Two trading peoples, the Phoenicians and Aramaeans, developed systems of alphabetic writing which were adopted by other peoples. The Hebrews used a script derived from the Phoenician during the reign of King David but later switched to one based on Aramaic. The Greek alphabet, also derived from the Phoenician, came into use in the early or middle part of the 1st millennium B.C. Aramaean traders carried their alphabet eastward across Persia and Afghanistan into northern India. The significance of this innovation is that, with its relative ease of acquisition, written language became accessible to many more people. A reading public was created.

Then in 1454 A.D. came Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable type, the third event in this series. The Chinese and Koreans had developed print technology before the Europeans; it had been used to mass-produce Buddhist literature during the T’ang dynasty. However, the Far Eastern scripts, being non-alphabetic, were less amenable to printing than European scripts so that this technology had a smaller impact on their culture. After Gutenberg, Europe was immersed in printed literature. The Protestant Reformation and its Roman Catholic reaction inspired numerous pamphlets supporting one or the other cause. Popular education required printed textbooks. Journals and newsletters were distributed to subscribing circles of readers; then mass-circulation newspapers. Without printing, none of this could have happened.

The fourth such change is based on a series of inventions which first appeared in the mid 19th century. Photography was the first. Here a machine focused light upon a plate coated with light-sensitive chemicals to produce a visual image. This technology differed from the previous ones in that its product was an enduring sensuous image, not a set of words. Technologies which used electricity then followed: the telephone, telegraph, phonograph, and cinema. In the 20th century, electronic broadcasting in the form of radio and television created new media of mass communication supporting the entertainment age.

One can postulate a fifth cultural shift on the basis of the computer technology being developed in our own day. This is no mere extension of the previous kinds of electronic devices because computers offer the possibility of interactive, individualized communication. In this culture, nerdy individuals who type messages upon computer keyboards have replaced hip listeners who groove to the sound of musical recordings played on CDs, stereos, and tape cassettes. Specialized interest groups take the place of mass audiences.

This gives a summary of technological events that have driven changes in civilization. The civilizations themselves follow a scheme of history presented in my previous book, Five Epochs of Civilization. Briefly stated, the first civilization encompassed the earliest phase of urban society, beginning with the appearance of small city-states in the 4th millennium B.C. and culminating in four large political empires that existed in the Old World in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. This civilization stood alone for three thousand years. Then a new type of society came along shaped by philosophers and religious prophets who first appeared in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. This civilization, whose principal institution was religion, dominated world history from the time of Christ until the 15th century A.D. There was a power-sharing arrangement between the religious and political authorities. The humanist culture of the Italian Renaissance marked the beginning of a third civilization whose principal institutions were educational and commercial. This civilization, which lasted until the early 20th century, is associated with the spread of European influence and power. The entertainment culture of the 20th century is the fourth civilization. The fifth, just begun, is whatever culture will come from computer technology, the Internet, and artificial intelligence.

This book is about ideals associated with these changing periods of history. Each new device to communicate and preserve an intelligent message creates its own type of space for public expression. Each has its own set of ideals. The assumption here is that the mode of communication imparts something of its nature to the content of an expression. In other words, what is said is affected by how it is said. If that is true, then a different kind of public experience will follow a change in the dominant communication technologies. The culture of writing will be different from the earlier oral culture. The culture of printed literature will differ from the manuscript culture. A reader may recognize that the generational culture clash mentioned above refers to the transition between cultures of the third and fourth civilizations. The print culture, being older and more fully developed, has a history of celebrated works which give it greater prestige than popular culture. Another approach would be to reject the view that one civilization is culturally superior to another and regard them as simply different. Their cultures are focused on different ideals.

The cultural impact

Preliterate culture has a quality that is different from literate culture. In all cultures, a lively communication takes place through spoken language. The problem with preliterate culture lies in preserving knowledge. The spoken message disappears once speech has ended. Only auditory echoes of what has been said remain in memory. But mind has a few tricks to strengthen and retain remembered knowledge. First, a spoken expression which has been repeated several times tends to be remembered more than something said only once. Therefore, tribal elders strengthen their oral culture by repeating certain stories. Second, spoken communication may be accompanied by pictures, inscribed symbols, ritualistic dance, or other tangible objects whose physical appearance triggers memory. Third, spoken words can be arranged in regular patterns that build extra memorability into them. In poetry, the use of meter, rhyme, and stock phrases help its reciters remember particular segments of the spoken words.

All these strengthening devices build oral culture. Such culture puts a premium on fidelity to ritualistic performance. The person who must remember everything develops a conservative mentality, unwilling to embrace changes that will require unlearning certain things and learning others to replace them. It would seem an utter liability to have to remember all this knowledge without recourse to writing. On the other hand, knowledge becomes more personal and intimately held when retained in memory than on paper. As primitive cultures are centered in religion, each ritual or or act of remembrance becomes a kind of prayer that connects oneself to the ancestral spirits and gods. There is a communal spirit in such cultures that literate society lacks. This type of remembrance is spiritually more powerful and rich than the type consisting of mostly unused books, though it may also be a less efficient way to preserve a culture.

Written language began in a commercial context. The merchants of ancient Sumer needed a way to keep track of commercial transactions. If a merchant stored grain, he needed to know how much of each type of grain was kept in a particular location. Historians believe that Sumerian merchants used tokens made of baked clay to symbolize certain quantities of commodities. One shape might mean six bushels of wheat; another, one bushel of wheat; still another, one gallon of olive oil. By placing such tokens in bowl-shaped clay containers and marking the outside accordingly, a merchant would know what and how much of each commodity he possessed. Writing proper began when merchants realized that the same information represented by the clay tokens inside the bowl was expressed by the markings on the outside. Therefore, they might dispense with the bowls and present information in the form of inscriptions on flat tablets.

Another breakthrough occurred when these merchant-accountants separated the numeric and qualitative aspects of the symbols. Two different symbols were used, for instance, for six bushels (of anything) and for wheat (as a commodity) where they had previously been combined. It then became possible to apply the symbol of six bushels to another commodity (such as barley) and the symbol of wheat to a different quantity (such as eight). As each symbol stood for a pure element of thought, the symbols became associated with spoken words. Words which referred to physical objects might be represented by line drawings which visually resembled the object. For instance, a circle might represent the sun; or, because the sun rose once each day, it might also represent the concept of “day”. Words of abstract meaning whose syllables were phonetically the same as those in words representing physical objects might use the same visual symbols. Eventually written language acquired symbols for every word found in speech. This was ideographic writing: Each symbol stood for an idea or, in other words, a word.

As a consequence of this invention, humanity now had a way to remember all the spoken words which were recorded in this manner. The memory was permanent and exact. A drawback was the large quantity of symbols. Each word of speech needed a corresponding word in written language. If there were ten thousand spoken words, the same number of written symbols had to be created. It was a daunting task to learn to read and write with so many different symbols. In a primitive society, only large institutions such government or temple priesthoods could afford to train persons in this art. Scribes recorded tax collections, legal contracts, religious rituals, and other documents or information which the institutions needed to function. Like the Confucian scholars in later Chinese dynasties, the Egyptian or Sumerian administrators who had mastered the technique of writing often held high rank in the imperial bureaucracies. Their access to written knowledge became a source of privilege and power. The very difficulty of acquiring literacy meant that such power would be held in the hands of the few.

At this stage in history, society was engaged in creating large political empires. Scribes were needed to handle the internal communication to govern vast territories. The art of writing went hand in hand with the formation of government bureaucracies. One thinks of the large-scale efforts required to build the Egyptian pyramids or maintain canals in southern Iraq. Writing was part of the process. In a mostly illiterate society, it was enough that someone possessed the technical knowledge to build large monuments or recite important prayers correctly; a few scribes could retrieve it from writing. Unlike the Greeks, Babylonian and Egyptian scholars did not ascend to the level of generalized knowledge. Instead, they recorded step-by-step procedures for carrying out technical work, whether it be in mathematics, medicine, or mechanical engineering. They compiled lists of vocabulary, medicinal herbs, texts for public worship or divination, and astronomical observations. These scholars were technicians who applied this written knowledge to practical ends. Theoretical arguments and proofs were yet unknown.

The spread of alphabetic literacy through the Old World coincided with that remarkable cultural awakening which took place during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. So many world-renowned philosophers and religious leaders lived then, including Buddha, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Socrates, Lao-tse and Confucius. Apart from the Chinese sages, one can associate these men with the spread of writing in its alphabetic form. Why did the alphabet prove such a stimulus to culture? For one thing, alphabetic scripts simplified writing by reducing the number of symbols that needed to be learned from hundreds or thousands to about two dozen. Any word included in speech could be visually represented by a small number of alphabetic letters. If someone was unsure what a word meant, he could sound out the syllables to hear its equivalent speech. That simplification made writing accessible to many more people. As written knowledge seeped out to the general public, it threatened the privileged position of bureaucrats who had once monopolized this art. Buddhism posed a direct challenge to the hereditary Brahman priesthood of India. Philosophers such as Zoroaster and Plato envisioned kingdoms remade according to the ideals of justice and good. Confucius, on the other hand, looked back to legendary kings of prehistoric China whose reigns were remembered for their social harmony.

Some argue that alphabetic writing presents a model of orderly arrangements which can be applied to other areas. Unlike previous schemes, this script lets words be listed in alphabetic order, which is an essential step in classifications. The act of decoding and reconstructing syllabic sounds involves a logical process which also has broader application. Alphabetic writing therefore brought literacy to a broader and more active group of people than before. Merchants may have been first to use it. Their experiences in visiting strange and distant places stimulated comparison between languages, religions, customs, and ideas. This short-hand script created a more energetic and inquiring type of society. Some of the inquirers were philosophers who developed their own systems of ideas. As the knowledge of writing became widely diffused, its visual markings became objects of curiosity, especially in societies with a strong oral tradition. Such a society existed in the Greek city-states of the 5th century B.C. Homeric verse, remembered not read, was the cultural matrix that united the Greek people. Yet, such writers as Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Sophocles had also arrived on the scene.

In this society on the frontier between oral and literate cultures, it is not surprising that a man such as Socrates would raise questions concerning the nature of words. “What is courage?”, “What is justice?”, he would ask. The answers to those questions comprise the great ideals of western civilization. Beauty, truth, and the good are principles of excellence that still inspire our culture. In the hands of Plato, Socrates’ disciple and biographer, such ideals are more than behavioral categories, though. They are themselves interesting as examples of a new kind of object. Such ideals are essentially words or, more accurately, the pure types standing behind words. They are generalities of various sorts. The idea of general ideas was something new at this point in human culture. Did or did not ideas exist? Although they were not found in particular physical objects, ideas existed in a range of objects that shared a common nature. Plato argued that this type of being existed as surely as physical objects. Platonic ideals existed somewhere in a heaven-like realm of logical space, providing patterns to create various things. This mysterious realm was also related to human immortality, whose belief had sustained Socrates in his last hour. Ultimately, Socrates’ and Plato’s ideas about eternal being found a place in Christian theology.

When the print revolution swept through Europe in the late 15th century, it produced another change in the culture. Printing applied mass-production techniques to particular texts. This made them not only cheaper and so more available to persons of average means but also more susceptible to standardization and quality control. Since a manuscript copyist produces a single copy of a text, it is not economical to hire a proofreader to check the accuracy of his work. Where a printer creates thousands of copies of the same text in the same form, however, it does become worthwhile to review the proofs carefully since an error will be multiplied many times. Manuscripts created before the print revolution contain a variety of spellings, punctuations, and grammatical constructions. For example, Shakespeare’s contemporaries spelled his last name in a number of different ways. However, one ought not to judge writers of this period by the standards of print culture. The increased ability to control the quality of texts led to greater uniformity and standardization of their features.

The introduction of printing coincided with a renewed interest in the writings of classical Roman and Greek authors. Petrarch, an Italian poet of the 14th century, pioneered the technique of textual criticism. His purpose was to ensure that texts handed down through centuries of manuscript copying retained fidelity to what the author had written. The works of classical Greek and Roman culture were regarded as products of a superior civilization, worthy of emulation and study. A similar veneration was accorded the Biblical scriptures, of course. Scholars such as Erasmus and Martin Luther created new translations of the Bible from Latin or Greek, wanting to be as true to the original text as it was humanly possible. All this placed increased cultural attention upon texts, not so much as a source of ideas (which was important in the previous philosophical age) but as an aesthetic structure embodying the authors’ exact words and illustrating his style of writing.

Such values influenced the culture of western education. Humanist scholars, steeped in the Graeco-Roman classics, tutored the children of wealthy Italian merchants. Schools and universities sprouted up all over Europe. Religious rivalry between Catholics and Protestants also had a stimulating effect upon education. Both sides wanted to educate persons to their own point of view. Over the years, however, the focus of education shifted from religion to secular culture, and from Graeco-Roman classics to works produced by authors of one’s own nationality. Writings in the reader’s own tongue became staples of literature courses. The idea was to admire an author’s literary style. Students might perhaps learn how to write better themselves by imitating or, at least, appreciating what the English scholar, Matthew Arnold, called “the best that has been thought or written” in one’s culture. Inside the ivy-covered buildings and courtyards of academia, scholars pondered and discussed the fine points of their cultural heritage. Oxford University in the late 19th century epitomized academic life. Its values centered upon understanding and preserving venerated literary texts, mostly from classical antiquity. Fidelity to the original text was the ideal of such scholarship.

Universal education and printed literature, including newspapers and magazines, transmitted these values to the general public. Because printing allowed the exact words of a noted author to be widely disseminated, it was possible for a text to become an object of admiration and study within a broad community. Whole nations learned to appreciate the dramatic writings of Shakespeare or the musical compositions of Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach. Pilgrimages were undertaken to Stratford-on-Avon, Weimar, or Vienna as once to the site of a saint’s bones. Celebrated writers, artists, and musicians, admired initially for their creative productions, became objects of interest in their own right. The public began to follow events in their personal lives. Novelists such as Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray were celebrities on the 19th century lecture circuit. Famous writers of the 20th century such as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald became almost as well known for their hard-living, hard-drinking, partying ways as for the novels they wrote. The cult of the author started with the capacity of print technology to preserve and reproduce texts as the words were originally written.

Then another set of technologies appeared. With photography, the visual artist’s usefulness in being able to preserve a face or a scene on canvas quickly depreciated. A mere machine was able to produce a better likeness of subjects than the most highly skilled painter. When phonographs and motion pictures came along, audiences became exposed to the personal qualities in a singer’s or an actor’s face and voice. Before long, the cultural attention shifted from what a musical composer or writer of a dramatic script had written to how the performer interpreted or rendered such works. Only a few purists knew or cared about the quality of a screenwriter’s work in a well-known film or a songwriter’s role in creating music that had made some pop singer a star. Those who had been celebrated in the previous culture now labored in relative anonymity. The dominant medium of cultural expression was no longer printed literature but those electronic media which projected visual or auditory images. These new media conveyed the sensuous qualities of an artistic expression - and sense overpowers intellectual design.

As creative artists had once attracted cults of personal following, so performers in the new media now became sensuous commodities with their styles appealing to certain individuals. We have come to measure a performer’s worth by his or her box-office draw, or by the number of albums or tapes sold, or by audience ratings for a television show. People tune into these productions to catch a glimpse of their favorite personalities - not of the one who created the productions conceptually but of the person in front of the camera or microphone whose personal image comes across directly to mass audiences. Followers of the entertainment scene also catch the performers’ personalities in tabloid newspapers or on late-night talk shows.

Does this new culture of electronic communication have “ideals” or is it just attractive images? One might say that a unifying value in this culture is that of giving a good performance. What might such a performance be? Each art form has its own critics who assess the value of particular works. In general, however, the culture of electronic entertainment puts a premium upon that element in good performances which might be termed “rhythm”. While this word has primarily musical connotations, it can be applied to a broad range of performing activities to characterize excellent performances as opposed to ones that are lackluster. In whichever venue, audiences want performances sparkling with rhythm. They want emotionally gripping performances - daring exhibitions where everything seems to go right. And they admire the performers who can deliver this on cue. They admire athletes who, despite the pressure, can win championship games; or popular singers who can excite audiences in packed stadiums; or comedians with just the right touch in a television routine. In whatever mode of performance, the public admires performers who can get themselves up for the occasion and give a good show when it counts.

This ability to rise to the occasion has a spiritual dimension. Rhythm, like the ideals of Greek philosophy, has certain innate qualities. Knowledge of its definition might, perhaps, help someone produce it on demand. In interviews with top-flight athletes, psychologists have learned to recognize certain techniques that bring on peak performance. The technique of visualization, for instance, helps an athlete become mentally focused on the task at hand. Jack Nicklaus, the golfer, said that he will often “watch a movie” inside his head before attempting a shot. This book will track down some of rhythm’s various manifestations in an attempt to understand its concept more than before. The reader can judge whether, in this case, it is a worthwhile activity or a project of alien spirit.

In passing, one might note that a new civilization based on computer technology has made its first appearances and that this culture will have its own ideals. However, it may be too soon at this point to say what those might be. The point is that cultural ideals do not stay forever fixed but change to suit each historical epoch. Such ideals represent the interior consciousness of a culture and are vital to the experience of persons living in its particular world.

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