The other night I was traveling through the city, first by bus then walking, and doing a bit of people watching. The bus was typically crowded; standing room only, pressed up against strangers. Normally on transit I read but it was clearly not possible given the number of people. So I overheard a series of conversations. What struck me was how few of them were between people actually on the bus. I was hearing half of these conversations, the other half taking place blocks, kilometers or even cities away. That’s bizarre. That’s fantastic.
I arrive at my stop and get off the bus, now walking down some side streets. I pass a woman talking to someone on her bluetooth. She’s still making facial expressions and hand gestures, as if the person could see her. Her brain actually feels like there’s another person next to her in the conversation. And I’m not calling her crazy for doing this, I do the same thing (well I don’t have a bluetooth, but similarly unnecessary visual cues while on a cell phone).
This experience got me thinking on how unique we are. This ability we have, to communicate over vast distances, it may not be the thing that differentiates us from other creatures, but it’s the significant final element. The core end result of our technology is that we can do this. In generalized terms, it allows us to extend our conscious will across space and time. If you look at the animal kingdom, many non-human creatures can speak and communicate in some fashion. We don’t know exactly how complex their languages may be, but they can definitely express something vocally and/or through physical gestures.
Writing is one of the earlier technological signs of a ‘civilization’. Language is a way for an individual brain to influence the world around them by imparting ideas into other brains. It’s limited by its locality because only people nearby can hear. With the advent of writing, that locality is extended through time into the future. When you read ancient manuscripts from Greece, China, Mesopotamia, etc, you are hearing the words of people long dead. This is a startling power and it’s crucial for the development of all other technologies. Whereas before new ideas must be passed down person to person, now they could lie dormant, like the seeds of a great tree.
It allowed for great power to centralize within individual hands. The rulers of nations were only capable of doing so by utilising an extensive bureaucracy, which itself required the written word. Some may argue that this was a bad thing, others say it good, but none can disagree that it allows a single person to wield far more power than would ever be possible without it.
Additionally, when writing is moved around the world, it not only travels through time but also space. The words of a man in China can bring technology to Europe. The spread of religious texts shows how powerful this can be. The technology of writing advanced over time, making the written word more accessible to more people. These were incremental advances, improving upon the original. The printing press was a major leap forward but I would argue the far more significant revolution had to wait for the 1800’s and the discovery of electricity.
Transmitting words through wires allows us to broadcast our ideas over space without a time lag. The lag of physical writing would severely hamper two way communication, often setting back human discoveries by generations due to failed opportunities. Transferring of writings could result in the originator being deceased long before the ideas could reach enough people to achieve their true potential. Telegraph wires pushed this back but radio was what broke the barrier. The first time the ruler of a nation broadcast their voice over the radio, effectively exerting their mental will into thousands and thousands of homes, that was the dawning of a new era for humanity. It was as if they had made an avatar of themselves and placed it in every home of the nation. That is awe inspiring power. And I mean awe in the original form, powerful yet tinged with fear.
And now to the modern era and the people on the bus. We all have this insane ability. We can exert our will across space and time. In social media we post, and like, and comment; it’s all communicating across distances. Visualizing this helps to show its true power. Try to see these massive arcing blue lines connecting each person on the bus to the other end of the lines. I’d love to get some technology, ala an augmented reality app, to actually see all these pulses connecting us through radio communication. That woman on the bluetooth, it’s as if she had an avatar of the other person walking next to her and talking. That’s effectively what we’re able to do, even if we can’t see them yet. We need to appreciate the power we wield.
Really this blog is an attempt for my will to be exerted across time and space.
Upon you dear reader.