The history of communication

The history of communication


We, humans, are social creatures. In order to be social, we have developed languages, speech has been with us about 500,000 years but sometimes that is not enough. Cave paintings show the necessity of lasting communication: media was born about 30,000 years ago.

Hieroglyphics in Luxor, Egypt.

It took another 20,000 years after the first cave paintings for the next development. Petroglyphs, symbolic carving in rock. Then pictograms, images that represent things, followed by ideograms, symbols that represented ideas. The communication of ideas was a big leap forward. Simple at first, the ideograms developed into writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Chinese characters, which are a highly sophisticated form.

Parallel to the sophistication of ideograms in China was the development of alphabets, symbols that represented a sound rather than a meaning. All languages contain pictographic and idiomatic elements as well as representing syllables (cuneiform) and individual sounds. But in the Middle East writing moved towards alphabets where a letter represented a sound.

Story Telling

But for most of this time reading was for the educated few. The literacy rate was low. The means of communication was oral and the medium was oral. The people were not unintelligent. The storytellers were often could recite long stories from memory without making a mistake. The early books of the Bible are written in the form of stories. A key element in these stories was repetition. The book of Daniel, written later than the early Biblical books uses repetition, such as, “When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe and all kinds of music,” which give away its roots in the oral tradition. Literacy was not important when producing books was expensive. Things were written to be read out loud and listened to. The invention of the printing press changed that, people became consumers of books. As books became cheaper literacy rose. Then there were newspapers, the telephone, radio and TV. People became consumers of the media.

The media

The medium is the message said Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. It means that the nature of a medium is more important than the meaning or content of the message. The thing to remember is that how we hear things affects what we hear.

Once the news was spread orally by story-tellers. Now it is broadcast on TV and the radio, on the internet and in newspapers by storytellers. Journalists are storytellers, finding an angle from to tell the story so the readers will accept what is said. Telling dry facts will not do this, there has to be an angle, often the human angle, to tell the story from. A good but old example of this was BBC reporter Michael Buerk giving the news of the 1984 Ethiopian famine from the point of view of children starving. It led to Live Aid charity concerts in 1985 and has been called the greatest news report on TV ever.

How we present what we wish to communicate depends on the medium used. The internet will be biassed to the relatively wealthy, in world terms because many areas in poor countries do not have internet access to tell their stories even if they could afford the smartphones and computers to do so. It is so easy to surround ourselves on social media with people with similar views and similar likes and similar beliefs. If we are not careful the internet instead of connecting us to people unlike ourselves insulates us from knowing them yet still leaves us vulnerable to them as much of the internet is publicly accessible.

The medium changes things. If it were not for the invention of the printing press would the teachings of the Reformers Luther, Calvin and Zwingli have got out? The media are changing fast. TV was at first broadcast by the few for the many, now many in rich countries in the UK can stream live from their smartphones onto social media. 3G and 4G phone videos are regularly used in TV news coverage, improving the human angle of how it feels to be there. What will happen when 5G becomes common.

On the minus side, online anonymity has meant that people feel free to hate. To use social media you have to know how to shield yourself. News can be spread quickly, but so can lies, propaganda and referring to true reports as ‘Fake News.’ Politics is becoming negative, campaigns are more about who you are against than who you are for. We need a new development towards the positive and it will need to be led by some new medium because the medium dictates how the message is received.

We have a vast choice of media to choose from to get our message out there. The message needs tailoring to whatever medium we use, and to what medium our target audience is used to getting their information from. Several versions of the same thing may be required, that’s the reality of digital life.

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