The retrogression of communication
May 2, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

Back in the old days, cavemen communicated with a combination of grunts and gestures.

This limited their ability to exchange complex ideas.

Over time, language evolved, and people were able to communicate via the spoken word.

Knowledge was passed down through the oral tradition of storytelling, similar to the way people get their news in taverns and coffee houses today.

Early man longed for a more permanent way to record his thoughts.

He started by drawing or carving symbols on rocks and other objects.

Eventually, written languages evolved.

We also developed paper, which, although less permanent than rocks, was much more portable.

Man’s ability to communicate was still limited by the technology that was available at the time.

In the 13th century, the Chinese carved images into wooden blocks, which in turn were used to transfer ink to paper.

This block printing technique allowed them to print paper money, and, interestingly, playing cards. Apparently, people have been finding ways to lose money as long as there has been money to lose.

The development of movable metal type for use in the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s, made it possible to produce larger quantities of books and documents, and to do so at a much lower cost. This facilitated the distribution of printed materials (and, as a result, literacy) to a wider audience.

During the 1840s, Samuel Morse developed a telegraph system that became widely-used and allowed people to quickly send messages over wires between remote locations.

Typewriters were another invention that made it more convenient to reproduce the written word.

The instrument that many consider the first practical modern typewriter was patented by Christopher Latham Sholes and his associates, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, in 1868.

This design was licensed to Remington & Sons of New York, the well-known gun makers, and became the Remington Model 1, the first commercial typewriter.

A decade later, Alexander Graham Bell uttered those famous words, “Come here Mr. Watson, I want to see you.”

From that point forward, people have been able to holler at their assistants and communicate with others using the human voice over the magic of the telephone.

It was about that same time that teenagers began disappearing for hours and having meaningful conversations about nothing over the wires.

Things really started cooking with the development of computers.

Their evolution is far too complex to address here, but one way computers radically changed communication was through the introduction of e-mail.

This allowed us to communicate and exchange documents without actually having to talk to another person.

Communication has become much more mobile, with the exploding popularity of cell phones. This allowed us to have conversations with people just about anywhere from just about anywhere.

More recently, however, technology has allowed us to send and receive text messages.

This combines the mobility of cell phones with the isolation of not having to actually talk to another person.

Texting is often used to convey messages using a simplified version of language that uses strange abbreviations and symbols, rather than proper sentences or grammar.

It is cumbersome to convey complex ideas using text messages, but it is quick, and we don’t have to talk to anyone.

It allows us to send messages without going to the trouble of sending an e-mail or having a conversation.

An offshoot of this was the introduction of Twitter, a service which allows people to broadcast small bits of limited information to a wide audience.

Presumably, this information is not important enough to warrant a more complete message, and the target audience is not all that critical.

The system is identified with terms from the bird world, but some would say it more closely resembles the canine world. Rather than formal communication, “tweets” as they are called, are cries for attention, and are equivalent to a dog cocking his leg up on fire hydrants to notify other dogs that he was there.

One of the most recent developments in communication is voice-activated texting.

This allows people to send messages without bothering to type their abbreviated jargon into their phones. They can simply speak, and the phones will do the rest.

We have come full circle. If we find ourselves confronted with zombies uttering a series of grunts and strange mutterings into their handheld devices, we can conclude that evolution (or rather, retrogression) has returned us to the place whence we came.

One can’t help thinking the cavemen would be right at home in modern America.

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