Human eras defined by modes of communication

I’m sure I have encountered this idea elsewhere so it is not new but this video stimulated my discussion here.

I like this method of dividing up human history by modes of communications instead of by predominant tools, structures, of civilizations.   I agree that the change in communication modes made the other changes possible.

I am not convinced there was every a time in human history that anything resembling humans communicated primarily by gestures and grunts, but I’ll grant it for argument’s sake because its inclusion makes the trajectory easier to see.

In short there are 4 epochs of human culture defined by modes of communications.

First was gestures that were used to give instructions or directives to others.  Second was spoken language allowing for communication over longer distance where the listener doesn’t have to see the speaker.   Third was written language where someone can read text from a distant place or distant time.  Fourth is the Internet era.

I have my own interpretation of the implications of each step and I have a different definition for the fourth era.

Gestures without any underlying grammar or syntax is limited to describing the immediate present.  Gestures communicate between individuals in immediate proximity, and the topic of discussion is also present at the time.   This allows for useful information such as instruction and or cooperation for some joint effort such as cooperative hunting.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m not convinced there was such a time in human history.   My definition of human is something that has capacity for grammar and practices it during its communications.  As with modern sign language, it is possible to have grammatical rules with gestures.   This allows for a evolutionary lineage where gestures in humans only became meaningful after grammar was available.  Similarly, there is a likely an independently evolved grammar among chimpanzees and because the lack of a shared common gesture language we can’t recognize the grammar yet.

In any case, I agree with the basic concept of a gesture-only form of communication being limited to the immediate present.

The emergence of spoken language in my mind marks the start of human history.  As mentioned above, spoken language allowed communication where the listener could understand the speaker even when the listener could not see the speaker.   More significant than distance between speaker and listener is the increase in topics that can be discussed.   The first era could only talk about present company and present objects.  The second era is able to talk about people and objects not present at the time.   The subjects can be in distant places, or they may be in the past or in the future.   The available to discuss, plan, and train about things that are not immediately present enabled the preparation for strategic hunts, cultivating crops, harvesting, storing for famine seasons, building of semi-permanent and permanent shelter.   Spoken language enabled civilizations to flourish up through the bronze age.

As a write that, I’m not sure about the absence of written language in the earliest civilizations.  There is evidence of writing in many ancient cultures although the ones that were preserved appear to be limited to religious or ceremonial topics of interest only to the ruling class.   There may be written language using more perishable media used by more common folk during these times, and I’m inclined to believe there may have been.   My note-taking when listening to a speaker seems to me to be as instinctual as my gesturing when I’m talking.

I’ll presume there was a period of human history where cultures flourished with a verbally fluent but illiterate population.

Written language presented a new opportunity not available to spoken languages.  It allowed people to retrieve ideas from people who are not present or may never be present.  Ideas were available from people and even cultures who are now long dead.  While the written language had the same versatility as spoken language, it presented the benefits and disadvantages of preservation of ideas.   Rarely needed ideas can be retrieved instead of having to be learned again.  More significantly, the older written ideas constrained what new ideas could be added: a contrarian new idea had to present a good argument to defends its challenge of the older idea.    New ideas often needed to cite older written work and this enabled for evaluating ideas over long periods of time.   Even today, works written centuries ago can challenge new ideas with contrary explanations.

I agree that in the 21st century we are entering a fourth era associated with the Internet.  While certainly the Internet has enabled to instant world-wide communication of ideas from any solitary individual, I don’t see that as radically different from existing written word practice.  Internet has cheapened the publication costs and sped up the distribution, but this is a iterative improvement that has been going on since the invention of the printing press.

The innovation of the modern era is the large-scale data storage, retrieval, and analytics that make successful platforms like Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc.   These technologies allow for rapid translation of different languages thus eliminating the language barriers.  More significantly, these technologies inherently separate information from narratives.

Until now, our of our communication involved some type of narrative or purpose.   We picked up the information after absorbing the narrative or appreciating the purpose.  Because the narrative came first, the information retains some connect to the same narrative.  Often when we transfer the same information to others, we use the same narrative that taught us the information.   We describe gravity as an explanation of a falling apple, or the orbit of the moon, for examples.

With modern data technology, we can separate out the information from the narrative.  As a result, now when we learn information from the data we learn it without the narrative baggage.   This frees us to consider information without paying respects to the original thinkers and their original thoughts.   We can reassemble information that otherwise would have been presented to us in contradictory narratives, but because they are free of those narratives we can assemble the information without having to reconcile the now irrelevant narratives they originally were packaged within.

The other side of this new era is that we are now free to publish information without narratives.   A simplistic example are the multitude of individuals with home weather stations offering basic measurements of temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc directly for anyone to retrieve without a need for publishing a weather report.   This is going on across all types of things that measure things and at all scales including national governments.

Even more narrative centered publication platforms like YouTube and blogs such as this one can be considered to be sources of information free of narrative.   When the above video describes the speed at which individual content creators can reach world-wide audiences, the message is a narrative.   As I said earlier, this is an incremental improvement over prior methods of publication of written work.   The narrative-free information comes from the aggregation of all YouTube content creators, all of their content including details such as their content and the relative publication times.   This is information available to us, the reader, free from narrative.

With the modern Internet era, we have the opportunity to publish information without any narrative, and we have the opportunity to retrieve information without a narrative.  This is very powerful because it allows us to build new narratives at the time we are retrieving the information.   The narrative is free to be whatever makes the most sense that ties together all of the information we are gathering at the moment.  The narrative will change from day to day and there is an increasing acceptance of this state of affairs.   We can make sense of the world based on current information alone.

In the era of written language, the publisher needed a coherent narrative to convey the information efficiently.   The primary purpose of the narrative was to deliver the narrative, but the consequence was that the narrative’s coherence had to be accepted as somehow tied to that information.   Use of an information from a narrative meant that any use of the information had to be consistent with the narrative.  This is a constraint the held us back, and it is a constraint that is being removed with the current era.

Perhaps an illustration of this is in this post itself.  The above video presents four eras of human communication from an evolutionary perspective where there was a long time when humans only gestured  and grunted, then there was a long time when humans spoke but did not write, then a long time when people wrote.    The useful information is the progression of information content possible with each era.    The unnecessary information is evolutionary explanation.   For this discussion to work, there doesn’t have to be a specific period of time when human culture flourished with illiterate people fluent in verbal languages.   There are clearly expansions of content starting with gestures, then adding verbal languages, then adding written languages.   The Internet era allows us to publish and retrieve information separately from the story-telling.


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