How we got to now, Part I: Communication + Early Media

Photo by Amador Loureiro
Photo by Amador Loureiro

What to watch for

After completing this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the foundations of human communication
  • Summarize the evolution of early forms of media

Spoiler alert: this is a class on new media.

But, to understand new media, we have to understand how we got to new media, as well as some of the foundational bits of how communication in general works. This lesson and the next aim to do just that.

But first, a few things before we dive right in.

  • These lessons are going to grossly oversimplify (and in many cases, leave out altogether) many important concepts! And that’s okay! People have spent large portions of their professional lives covering in great detail things we’re going to gloss over in a single sentence, and that’s awesome. Really, it is! If you’re curious about any of the things we briefly touch on here, go look up more, and then come back and share what you’ve learned with us. But, we’re going to stick with a very high level of abstraction because we’re mostly concerned with other things. Namely, I want you to try to…
  • Build an understandable, coherent narrative of how we got to now. History’s much more fun (and helpful!) if you look at it as a story. Of course, dates and details matter (and I’ll ask you to commit to memory a few key ones), but more than that, try to fit these terms and concepts together into a story that makes sense to you. This will help you…
  • Look for patterns. Patterns are where it’s at. By understanding the patterns of how new media emerges (often from previous forms of media mixed with something new (a technology, a social change, etc.)), you’ll be better able to form the aforementioned narrative. You’ll also build helpful tools that will enable you to better understand new forms of media as they emerge. An important note on patterns: they’re patterns, not hard-and-fast rules. People—and especially otherwise very clever people—often get into trouble by trying to make a one-to-one match between The Thing That Happened Before and The Thing That’s Happening Now. As you apply patterns to new things, be sure to attend not just to what might be similar but also to what new twists and wrinkles might be at play this time. I’d also love for you to…
  • Think about what new things are enabled by and what challenges are presented by each new medium. Individual technologies are important, but they’re only important if they’re considered in context. What awesome (or sometimes not-so-awesome) new things does each medium enable? What challenges does it present? Because remember, new mediums and technologies can be great, but in the end…
  • It all comes back to people. At the end of the day, we care about all of this stuff because of what it means (or meant) in the lives of real human beings, just like you and me. As we think about everything in this course (not just these two lessons), consider the human impact—that’s what truly matters.

Okay, with all that taken care of now, let’s get to it. We’ll start with the very (very) basics.

Human senses / perception 👀👂👅👃🤚

Without our senses, no other forms of communication or media would matter. (Obviously, a lot of other things wouldn’t matter, either, but let’s stick to the topic at hand.) Sight, sound, touch, feel, and smell1, not to mention other, lesser-known senses like proprioception.

Our senses are the foundation of our experience, and they’re innovations in their own right—being able to sense the world around us as richly as we do is the culmination of a lot of biological iteration and improvement.

Of course, senses are only inputs—no one else experiences precisely what you experience how you experience it except you2. Let’s move on to the most basic of outputs.

Self-contained gestures (yelling, moving arms/legs, hitting, etc.) 😱👋

Progress! These are things that other humans can sense, our most basic way to create a signal. Think about infants: they cry when they need something, move to get comfortable, and hit or kick away things that upset them.

There are still some big limitations, though—only people present at the time these self-contained gestures occur can see them, and by and large, they create meaning only about the person performing them, not anything else around them. It’ll take us a bit to solve the first problem, but there’s something we can do about the second one.

Pointing 👉

Imagine the infomercial for this one. “We’ve all been there: resting peacefully in our cave, when suddenly, a tiger walks up to its entrance. You see it, but your friend who has a spear has his back to the cave entrance. You can’t just yell or gesticulate—how would your friend know what that meant? Introducing: pointing, a breakthrough way to reference things that aren’t you.”

Pointing is a big deal! Being able to communicate beyond the self is an immense step forward, opening up new avenues for humans interaction. Stop for a minute and think about all that you can do just by pointing.3

But, there’s still a problem to overcome. What if you want to communicate about something that isn’t present right now?

Signs ✌

Signs are such a big deal that they have their own field of study, called semiotics. (I still think that pointing is a big deal, too, but as far as I know, it doesn’t have its own field of study.)

Signs let us talk about things that aren’t around us right now. At their most basic, think of child-like pantomimes—sprinkling your fingers while moving your hands down to indicate rain, for example.

Reaching this level of abstraction—being able to indicate things that aren’t physically present—is in many ways our first real language. Push signs further, though, and language really opens up. Once you have the ability to represent abstract concepts, like love, family, or time, you can have a fully expressive language, like ASL.

Speech 🗣

Compared to a fully-developed sign language like ASL, speech is no more expressive. But, for people who can speak and hear (which is most people), it’s in many ways physically easier, which is likely why speech is the primary means of human communication. Plus, it offers a few bits of flexibility that gestures don’t, like its ability to cover distance (shouting FTW!) and transcend visual obstacles (no line of sight needed).

However, now that we’ve gotten to fully expressive human language, it’s time to shift gears a bit and deal with the big problem that all of these forms of communication still can’t overcome on their own: permanence.4

There are, of course, counter-examples, such as stories—even very long ones, like epic Greek poetry—passed down from generation to generation. But, the preservation of oral information relies on two potentially very risky factors: the notoriously unreliable memories 5 of human beings and the ongoing survival of people who speak a given language. How to overcome them?

Required Reading:
History of Communication

(1,470 words / 7-10 minutes)


A quick word about required readings:

Welcome to our first required reading! So far, all the other links, videos, etc. have been optional—they’re there for fun, or if you’re curious and want to learn more. There will be plenty more like them going forward, but it’s time to introduce a second kind of thing: required readings.

Required readings are different in that they’re, um, required. Treat them just like the lessons on this site: you’re responsible for carefully and completely reading and comprehending them (unless otherwise indicated—occasionally I’ll indicate for you to skim6 certain sections). They’ll always appear like this, in slightly indented grey boxes. Also, I’ll include them (broken out) in the word count and reading time for each lesson.

Throughout the site, I’ll do different things with required readings. Sometimes, when specific words, phrases, or passages matter, I’ll quote the readings extensively. At other times, as I’m about to do here, I’ll share, without quoting much, my (sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy) thoughts on the reading.

Don’t just read my notes, and conversely, don’t just read the reading, either—the reading and my notes, though they’ll certainly overlap at times, are designed to be complementary. That is, you’ll only get the full picture of what we’re discussing by reading both together. If it helps, you might think about the required readings like homework and what I’ve written on this site as my lectures about the homework.

So with that, on to my notes on the reading itself!


Cave paintings and petroglyphs

As far as we know, cave paintings like this one represent humanity’s first form of permanent communication.

Bison in the Altamira cave
Bison in the Altamira cave

Cave paintings (and petroglyphs) are our first mediums whose preservation isn’t tied to human memory or the preservation of a spoken language. That’s a huge deal!

However, there are still two big problems. First, a major lack of clarity. Not all cave paintings are as recognizable as the bison above, but even if they were, there would still be problems. What exactly is this bison doing? When? Who painted him? Second, we’re back, in a sense, to pointing: cave paintings can (mostly) represent only visible, non-abstract objects.

Our next few forms of communication represent humanity’s collective efforts to tackle those problems in permanent media.

Pictograms

Pictograms, also called pictographs, bring several key innovations. First, they (somewhat) standardize a visual language—the same image of a bison or a person will be repeated multiple times. The second innovation is closely tied to the first: pictograms often show sequence, thus offering us our first permanent media that can clearly show chronology—the order in which things happened (turns out this is important for conveying information).

Ideograms

Ideograms are pictograms, but with one key innovation—they use symbols to represent abstract ideas like emotions or relationships. This greatly increased the realm of what it was possible to communicate, just like signs did for non-permanent communication.

Logographic writing

Logographic writing evolved naturally from pictograms and ideograms. It’s a fully standardized written language in which:

a written character [represents] a word or phrase. Chinese characters and Japanese kanji are logograms; some Egyptian hieroglyphs and some graphemes in Cuneiform script are also logograms.

The standardization offered by logographic writing systems (vs. pictograms and ideograms) enabled the use of written communication to scale to larger and larger groups.

What didn’t scale as neatly, however, was the visual language itself. Every new word, phrase, concept, or even shade of meaning required a new image. As it turns out, past a certain point, things get really complicated in systems like these. 7

Alphabetic (phonographic) writing

Alphabetic writing solves that very problem by introducing a supremely useful layer of abstraction: written characters represent the sounds used to produce spoken words rather than the concepts behind the words.

This innovation allowed the range of words and concepts represented by written languages to scale nearly infinitely.

We’re almost ready to move on to Part II: Telecommunication and Mass Media, but before we do, we need to address one crucial medium that enabled the spread of written language.

Papyrus

Writing on stone definitely has its advantages—stones don’t have to be manufactured or processed to be written on 8, and they’re super-permanent.

However, stones present several notable limitations9. Namely, they’re super heavy.10 and they offer a very low information density—it takes a lot of stone to store meaningful amounts of information.

Papyrus—an early form of paper, not the overused font inexplicably used by Avatar—solved those problems, though at the cost of durability. 11 Paper is lightweight and portable, and it’s also quicker to mark on paper than on stone. Additionally, it offers really pretty great information density, whether on a scroll or in a codex. 12

Non-required Readings

Non-required readings are exactly what they sound like: additional readings related—to varying degrees—to the current lesson that aren’t essential to the class (and won’t be on quizzes or exams) but are probably worth a read if you want to learn more about the topic.

They’ll always appear at the end of a lesson, set off in a blue box just like this one.

On Icons” by iA.

Super-relevant to the stuff in this lesson (and featuring super-fun icon art!), this reading talks about icons and their labels.

The Empty Brain” by Robert Epstein.

An utterly fascinating read arguing that “your brain is not a computer.” I’m not sure I completely agree with it, especially in light of advances in machine learning like AlphaGo (or as described pieces like this one, for example), but its central thesis is nonetheless worth serious consideration. Perhaps only tangentially connected to this lesson, but I read it when I was working on this lesson, so there you have it. Still, go read it now.

Discussion questions

  • Imagine / talk about what it would have been like to communicate without speech or an infinitely reconfigurable form of communication.
  • What trends or patterns do you see in the evolution of the methods of communication discussed in this lesson?
  • What forms of communication piqued your curiosity and made you want to learn more? Share what you learned.
  • Did you read either of the non-required readings? If so, share your thoughts.

And with that, on to Part II!

Words on / reading time for this page: 2,464 words / 12-15 minutes

Words in / reading time for required readings: 1,470 words / 7-10 minutes

Total words in / reading time for this lesson: 3,673 words / 19-25 minutes


  1. Not a lot of forms of media take advantage of this one, eh? Just wait, this year I’m sure we’ll get Smell, followed 6-8 months later by the Samsung Galaxy Smell, which mostly works and has better specs but is actually kinda worse.

  2. Think about that for a minute.

  3. No, seriously, do it—it’s a great thought exercise. Maybe even make a list in your notes!(You are taking notes, right?)

  4. Relatively speaking, of course—nothing is truly permanent. Non-ephemeral might be a more precise term, but I’ll stick with the more familiar permanent for now.

  5. And potentially even more fleeting interest

  6. Skimming well is one of the essential skills for surviving college (and life in general). If you haven’t yet mastered the art of skimming, this course will be an excellent opportunity to improve

  7. Again, it’s a useful thought exercise—or even discussion topic!—to consider why and how.

  8. Though they certainly could be, and were, and still are!

  9. You don’t say.

  10. Remember, this is a college course you’re paying money for.

  11. At least under less-than-ideal conditions; under the right conditions, paper can be preserved for a very long time.

  12. As always, there are further rabbit holes to go down: for a fascinating take on the ways that the physical forms of scrolls and codices shaped their use and contents, see the fascinating article by the always-excellent Alan Jacobs.