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Hypermedia Online Publishing: the Transformation of the Scholarly Journal

3.2.1 Early developments in communication

Prior to the recent rise of networked computer and communications technology, there have been four major developments in communication.

The first was the appearance of language, probably some time in the last 200,000 years. Without language, the range of possible things to be communicated is severely limited (although by no means null). Communication of ideas is one of homo sapiens' great cultural achievements. At first one could communicate through space only as far as sight and sound could reach; through time only as far as human memory was reliable. Oral traditions were used to preserve information in ways that are still visible (although now in written form) in works like fairy stories and the Pentateuch, and in living oral traditions like schoolyard rhymes and games that constantly needed to be renewed [Rose, 1993, chapter 4]. The Icelandic society circa 1,000 C.E. even based an entire legal system around the office of the lögsagumar (literally 'law saying man') who had memorised the law and could pronounce decisions based on it. However, with only oral communication, space was still a barrier and memory was still fallible.

The second development was the invention of a written form of language circa 5,000 B.C.E. This now permitted communication through both space and time. Assuming durable materials a message could be carried to the ends of the earth, or preserved to the end of time. Knowledge could now be extended to one's contemporaries and descendants. Most importantly, cultural advances did not need to be re-learned by rote each generation, or lost in some catastrophe. Each new generation could start from the level reached by the last. Writing effectively allowed civilisation to take off. The endless inventiveness of humans is seen clearly in the various solutions they have developed for the problem of making concrete records of language, both in terms of symbolic systems (ideographs, syllabaries, alphabets) and recording materials (wood, stone, papyrus, clay, parchment, vellum, paper). It is important to note that the availability of materials often conditioned the form and medium of writing. The Babylonians had no access to papyrus, and little suitable stone. Therefore, they chose to use clay tablets, and adopted a writing system that involved pressing a stylus into the tablets and making triangular marks (cuneiform).

The third development was that of printing, developed around 1,000 - 1,500C.E. (depending on how one defines printing). To use modern terminology, printing provided the ability to broadcast a communications artefact (because of the ability to print lots of identical copies for distribution) in contrast to the narrowcasting inherent in manuscripts (because of the time taken to make each copy). The widespread use of printing brought with it the gradual development of additional navigation features (that had not existed in manuscripts) and greater standardisation [Schaffner, 1994]. Printing also began the knowledge explosion that is still continuing (and accelerating!) [Eisenstein, 1979, [Eisenstein, 1983]. There are interesting parallels between the rise of printing and the spread of the Internet today:

The fourth development was the ability to communicate at a distance, not just in the sense used by Kaufer and Carley [Kaufer and Carley, 1993] when discussing print, but without having to physically move an artefact for the communication to take place.Initially, physical transport of messages on land was dependent on roads. Letters and despatches had been used for centuries, but mostly for government purposes only. The development of postal services for the public at large is comparatively recent. Initial attempts were made by merchants to speed the movement of business information. The 'Penny Post' was introduced in the U.K. by 1688 and by 1702-3 nearly one million letters were carried by this arrangement. The impact of steam locomotion provided increased speed for mail transport, as well as improved direct interpersonal communication through personal mobility. Steam engines also increased the speed of transport of mails overseas. Again, there are significant parallels with developments in the information age: the integration of technologies led to increased growth, and technological change brought about an incremental increase in the speed of social change.

The critical breakthrough in communication at a distance was the separation of the transmission medium from the communication of the message. Prior to the 20th century, there had been some steps along this road: visual signals via beacons or fire (usually on/off messages only), African 'talking drums', flag-signals for the navy, heliographs, and the semaphore system (a 5400 km network of transmission stations built every 16 km) initially constructed to support the armies of the French Revolution. The development of electric/electronic communication in the last two hundred years has brought first the telegraph, then the telephone, and now satellites, fax machines and the Internet.

Despite all these changes in communication technology, the overall trend has been to keep multiple levels of the communications 'revolution' going simultaneously, while the leading edge keeps increasing in speed and capability. We still write letters, for instance (even if some of us spend much more time writing email!).

Last modified: Monday, 18-Sep-2017 03:27:32 AEST

© Andrew Treloar, 2001. * *