Computers and Communications.
THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule
By ALAN MACFARLANE.
HUMAN BEINGS, LIKE other animals, shape their world through the ways in which they communicate. Humans receive about seventy percent of the information they derive from the external world through their eyes and the rest through the other four senses. A brief overview of world communication systems will show that we live in an unprecedented revolution in terms of experiencing the world, which builds on, but exceeds that of all previous changes.
The first great change occurred about ten thousand years ago with the discovery of writing. The ability to inscribe ideas onto a solid medium – bone, stone, papyrus, wood, clay – had enormous effects. It made civilisations possible, it transformed economies with the notion of property, it made government much more powerful, raising taxes and able to send messages over long distances. It led to the rise of written religious and legal codes, clergy, and lawyers. So we know that the world was changed radically by writing.
The second revolution occurred with the discovery of methods of reproducing or replicating written texts by the use of machines — what we call printing. First discovered in China around the eighth century A.D., printing with metal, movable, type was established in Europe by Gutenberg and his associates from the middle of the 15th century.
Those who have studied what is known as the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ have argued that as it developed in western Europe this type of printing had profound effects. Amongst those suggested are the birth of nationalism and the spread of national languages; religious schisms in the birth of Protestantism; the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progressive accumulation of knowledge and the correcting of earlier mistakes; the widening of education based on the multiplication of texts. Truth was now on the page, exterior to the individual, and people were united by books and increasingly newspapers in newly imagined communities. The period between the fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries were, in the West, the age of print.
The next revolution developed from the discovery of another machine, this time one which captured in a mechanical way what the eye saw – what has been termed ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’. The discovery of photography in the earlier nineteenth century, and then of moving pictures at the end of century, transformed what people could observe, share, and exchange. The world shrank with the photograph, and truth again was modified as it came to be represented by the camera which, some believed, never lied. Photo-journalism and the mass cinema were only two of the manifestations and vehicles for this.
Though it came along different paths, the discovery of the radio and then television in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century supplemented the power of photography and film. It is difficult to overestimate the effect of these two media in every part of life, from consumerism to sports and politics. Again truth was given a new meaning as the world shrunk and expanded in new ways.
THE FINAL REVOLUTION is more difficult to write about because we are in the middle of it. It is sometimes called the Digital Age, sometimes the Internet Age, sometimes the Computer Age, sometimes a Multimedia World. What all these refer to is the ever increasing effect of the computer.
At first, when discovered by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the first half of the nineteenth century, and then formally specified and instituted by Alan Turing and others in the middle of the twentieth century, it was not clear what the computer would do or how powerful a device humans had discovered when they invented a machine that appeared to think.
In the first thirty years of its widespread existence, that is between the 1960’s and 1980’s, it transformed business, government, and transport, but it was still not clear how it would permeate every aspect of life from arts and education to war and law. Now, with the supplementary power of linking computers effectively – the Internet from 1992 – and miniaturisation and increasing power, as in smart phones, and it’s harnessing to everything from drones to robots to surveillance cameras – it is becoming clear that we are living in a new age of instant communication across the globe. The remotest communities in the Himalayas or the Amazonian jungles, the poorest and the richest, young children and the elderly are all linked together in an unprecedented way.
We are only at the start of working out the implications of this revolution. Popular applications such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, are less than fifteen years old and many more are no doubt being dreamt up. The most ambitious assemblies of human knowledge in history, huge digital libraries and encyclopedias such as the vast Wikipedia, have suddenly emerged. Much of the sum of human knowledge held in manuscripts, archives, books, photographs, and films are now widely accessible, free, and searchable with powerful tools such as Google.
Humans have never lived in such a world before, so it is difficult to work out the potentials, dangers, and implications of the fourth great communications revolution. All that we know is that we are living through an age when the human brain is engaged in absorbing knowledge and expanding thought at an unprecedented speed. What implications does all this have for planning for the future?
MY FORMAL SCHOOLING FOR well over ten years almost exclusively trained me to survive in an age of written communication, the age of the journal and the book. I spent year after year of learning to read and write, to construct arguments with alphabetical letters, to appreciate great literature and to become, in my way, a critic. There were other symbolic systems which we also learnt, mathematics and to a certain extent music and art. Yet writing, combined with the content of English history and a great deal of Latin and some French, were the staples. All of this made sense in the 1950’s and 1960’s before what I shall call the computer age, but clearly it is not sufficient now.
Most people, including children, are gaining most of their information about the world, apart from that from friends and family, by way of electronic media, that is television and computer screens including smart phones. So it is obvious that they should be being trained in three crucial life skills. One is how to ‘read’ these media, in a parallel way to learning to read books. Secondly they should be taught how to ‘write’ in these media in the way we were taught to write letters and essays. Thirdly they need to be taught how to handle the enormous and conflicting pressures of living in a world awash with digital information, which can so easily become compulsive, addictive, and sometimes dangerous.
Let us take reading media, or, as the classic book by James Monaco calls it, How to Read a Film (1977 and later). What we see on screen, whether in the cinema, television, iPads or smart phones, is composed of complex arrays of colours and patterns, of sound and movement, an artificial and highly symbolic construct made by a mixture of humans and machines using advanced software (such as CGI). The messages we receive are based on rules and grammar in the same way as writing and the screens are filled with conventions, tricks, and hidden power.
Because such communications are at one level so easy to read (even animals and babies can read simple films, while it takes years to read texts well), it is easy to assume that, unlike reading books, we do not need to learn how to read visual images. Yet if we do not seriously instruct people, preferably at school, but also at any age, in learning how to understand as well as to superficially ‘read’ the images presented to us, then we are trapped.
We need to learn how visual media works on us and shapes us without our being aware of it, to avoid being caught and manipulated in the way that George Orwell described in relation to writing in some of his essays. To avoid being at the mercy of powerful media barons, marketing interests, and governments and pressure groups, we need to be able to discriminate truths from propaganda, lies from damned lies.
So every school should have serious classes where something equivalent to what we used to call ‘muck-a-pre’ (music appreciation) is taught with similar intensity to learning to read written texts. We need to learn the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and conventions of multiple media, computers, and the Internet. Such training should be as well funded and privileged as the learning to read in the older ways.
WHEN I LEARNED to read, this was both aided and made more interesting by learning simultaneously to write. The two were inextricably bound together. The same is true of learning to survive in the computer or Internet Age.
It is not enough just passively to learn to read what is on the screen, we should be taught all the arts of ‘writing’ on them with these new formats as well. Although at the time it was often frustrating and exhausting, I had the good fortune to be working early in the process of this revolution.
Computers were very basic when we started to use them and we had to work closely with several generations of software engineers in Cambridge to develop our own database systems, query languages, our own early versions of HTML, the Internet, and Google before any of these had been invented. This forced us to learn something about how computers worked, and the nature of programming. It is all much simpler now with packages and ‘apps’. But all students should still learn enough of the basic language and structure of the computing world to enable them to live comfortably and safely explore in our Internet age.
THE SAME GOOD fortune applied to the development of my understanding of visual imagery. I first filmed before the advent of ‘video’, and when video arrived there were no powerful editing packages. So I had to construct my own methods, to learn from the bottom up, to teach myself how to film, how to edit and later how to share the films I made in the early days of the Internet.
Again, while avoiding some of the tedium of incredibly antiquated hardware and software, it does seem essential that all citizens should learn the basics of making films as a way of really understanding how they are being manipulated by media. They should be encouraged to share their products with others and have them criticised, and to learn the advantages and disadvantages of making them public on the cloud.
More generically, people should be given instruction on how the different media, single or in combination, affect us and can be best used. This should be a part of any modern training. Writing, photography, filming, television, social media, all work in different, if overlapping ways and should be understood at least in their basic principles. An introductory course which covers symbols and signs, metaphors and metonymy, oral, aural, and visual, should be a universal part of any real education for the twenty-first century.
FINALLY, THERE IS another dimension which arises from the proliferation and ease of instant communication. This concerns the conventions and the rules, the etiquette and the ethics, and also the restraint involved with modern communication.
An analogy could be made with learning to drive a car and pass a driving test. Cars are obviously lethal devices, which can injure or kill people if driven badly. So we learn some of the basics with an instructor and then take a test to see if we are capable of going on the road. The same is true of even more powerful tools on the Internet.
As much or more harm can be done by ignorance or malice on the Internet, leading to psychological injuries, social rifts, and even deaths, as can be done with a car or motorbike. Yet we do not treat learning to surf the web in the way we would even deal with learning to surf the sea, let alone driving a car, plane or boat.
There is, as far as I know, apart from one or two guides of a technical kind concerned with ensuring that one’s computer is safe, no proper ‘Highway Code’ for the Internet. Without being prescriptive, such a code should be devised and learnt by young and old. Such things as courtesy, reading through what one puts up, copyright, ethical issues, the difference of the private and the public, the dangers of surveillance, the avoidance of risks (pornography, crime, viruses, and Trojans), there are a host of types of advice that could be standardised, even though they are always changing in this restless landscape.
I have had to learn all this by practice, as has each user, and I am constantly having to learn new practices, for example how to deal with strangers, people from other cultures with other conventions, what to answer and what to avoid, how to recognise spam. Yet not a single part of this whole new area was ever discussed, even at the rarefied level of Cambridge University, in the years up to 2009 and my retirement. I doubt whether it is yet.
Even some classes where young people are encouraged to share their experiences and anxieties, given some guidance and models, tips and warnings, could save a vast amount of anguish, inefficiency and misunderstanding.
We now live in a crowded cyber world where virtual cars, trucks, bikes, and pedestrians are trying to cohabit the digital space. It is far more complicated than driving on a crowded motorway and now absorbs more of human brainpower and time than real driving. We should be being instructed on how to prepare ourselves for this virtual highway through the clouds of digital data.
THIS TAKES ME to the last point. When I was young there were ‘bookworms’ at school, that is children who seemed to spend all their leisure time engrossed in reading comics and books. The imagined and fantasy worlds of adventure seemed far more appealing than the grim, dull, realities of school or many people’s homes and lives. These bookworms sometimes verged on information junkies or addicts – restless and anxious when away from their comics and adventure books.
If this was a temptation and addiction with written materials, it is not difficult to understand what is now widely recognised as one of the strong features of our time – addiction to the virtual world of television, computers, smart phones, ‘Second Worlds’ and gaming. I feel it myself, pining to check my emails after a few hours absence from them, excited at the prospect of new messages. Yet I have this addiction in a mild form, not having anything but an ancient Nokia mobile, no iPad, many spaces in my house and outhouses with no connected devices.
Yet as I look at my young friends and family, they are almost constantly checking their devices – receiving or sending messages, chuckling and exclaiming, living in parallel and imaginative worlds with circles of friends, or addictively checking the latest sports, political, cultural or other events around the world.
This is something new in scale and kind, though foreshadowed by the book. It is likely to become ever more enticing and addictive when receiving and sending messages becomes even easier – with watch-like devices, screens in the corner of our glasses, or by simple cameras attached to, or even implanted in, us. We may well, some are already predicting, be able to walk around and see and speak to anyone from anywhere with no need for the Internet, computers, or smartphones.
The fragmentation of attention, the invasion of privacy, the constant disturbance of longer-term concentration, the rudeness to those we are with, who realise that our minds and our eyes are elsewhere, all these are effects of this new world. They change the way in which people think and interact.
As the load of emails and other types of messages, on Facebook, Twitter or other platforms, surges upwards, to make politics and speech something far more complicated, we are dimly aware of what is happening. But as far as I know, there is no equivalent to even basic advice about other forms of addiction or diseases which we have given early in our lives.
We may be taught at some schools about smoking, drinking, unsafe sex, drugs, pornography. We may learn about how to avoid certain basic diseases, food allergies, and dietary disasters. But where is the instruction about the problems posed by new machines which appeal to the most human and powerful of drives – curiosity and the imagination?
Again, just some serious discussions about the issues, along with some suggested guidelines, might save minds and even lives. There are already equivalents to Alcoholics Anonymous in China and elsewhere, trying to detoxify Internet junkies. Why not prevent them reaching that stage by serious preparation for our age? This would obviously involve parents as well as children in courses on surviving the world of the cloud.
Alan Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for the Fortnightly.