An interesting post, Language is not writing, from the Economist prompted me to write a bit yesterday on the impact of Web on global conversations. The Web is a means to record both spoken language and writing. This dual capability is relatively new, especially in way the Web brings these forms to an increasing number of people on a global basis. Today I want to dip back to the history of communication media to see where we came from.
The invention of alphabetic writing was accompanied by parallel developments in the technologies of recording media and devices. The cuneiform of Sumer and Akkad used a wooden stylus on wet clay. The tablets were then baked. While lasting for millennia with no degradation, they were not very portable, and transportation was difficult. Pieces of pottery were also widely used for letters, accounts, and even homework, but they were not much good for lengthy texts.
It was not until the development of papyrus that real literary and academic works could easily be recorded and transported. This technology was used by the Greeks and Romans from the 5th century BC until the 8th or 9th century AD. It was superseded by parchment beginning in the 4th century AD. Both of these new media were easier to store and transport than the clay tablets but they were also more susceptible to the fire of invading armies.
As older civilizations passed, great efforts were made to preserve their knowledge. Much of the knowledge of the Greeks and Persians was preserved in Arabic translations by the expanding Islamic empire. This knowledge eventually made its way into the monasteries of Europe where monks preserved and translated these works. While the skills of translation and library science became highly developed, content was disseminated only with the great physical effort as it was still copied and preserved manually.
A knowledge revolution begun with the invention of text but it took a while for the delivery media and devices to be available to take advantage of the possibilities offered by text and for educators to adopt them. In addition, it took a while for new techniques to evolve that took full advantages of the options within the new media and devices. For example, the first use of text via the phonetic alphabet recorded and mimicked the oral tradition (e.g., Homer) even though it rendered this tradition potentially obsolete.
Subsequent works evolved to non-poetic prose volumes (e.g., Plato’s Republic), but the full transition from oral to written culture was slow. In fact, it appears that reading was often done aloud until after the 6th century. Ivan Illich relates that St. Augustine refrained from reading after his brothers went to sleep for fear of waking them. After the 6th century, silent reading became more commonplace, and such techniques such as tables of contents and indexes first appeared. These new devices allowed for random access to text information, a concept we take for granted now. Tomorrow, I will look at the impact of the printing press on the use of writing, as well as some of its shortcomings.