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Monday, March 25, 2013

From Grunts to Tweets: Communication and Human History

Dr. Marshall Poe, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, delivered the Sesquicentennial Lecture in History on Thursday, March 21, speaking on the topic “From Grunts to Tweets: Communication and Human History” in the University Center Theater. The title was an adaptation of the title of his book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet.

Dr. Poe maintained at the beginning of his lecture that there are certain ways to keep up an audience’s attention — be a stand-up comedian, be a stripper, or show a movie. Saying he would use none of these ways, he nevertheless performed somewhat like a stand-up comedian, roaming the stage with a hand-held microphone and holding the audience’s attention for considerably longer than fifteen minutes with his witty, interactive, and provocative lecture.

He began by asking the audience of approximately 100 people to hold up his or her smartphone.  He explained that it represented the latest development in communication. Communication itself, he explained, is one of the basic needs of human beings, serving to give information to others and to get information from others. With the smartphone, “you don’t have to be lonely, you don’t have to be ignorant.” As a form of computer, it is what all previous forms of communication were tending toward — it can handle any sort of information. He rejected popular notions of a population of citizens wasting away on the computer or becoming desensitized to the outside world – rather, he saw people who are more happy and smart due to this accessible and convenient form of information, all readily available at a person’s fingertips.

The cover of his book shows images representing forms of communication — a man, representing speech; a quill and inkpot, representing writing; a hand-operated press, representing printing; a television set, representing electronic devices; and a laptop computer, representing the Internet. Speech is perhaps 180,000 years old; writing perhaps 5,000; printing, about 500; television, 50-60; and the Internet, about 20. The innovations in communication have therefore followed with increasing rapidity. Dr. Poe noted that we still use all these forms of communication to some degree, but each has represented improvement in the ability to communicate.

Speech and memory are natural and practically universal among human beings; nearly all humans learn to speak with ease. They serve several purposes well, but they don’t always provide what is needed; speech has a limited range, and memory can fade or fail. What was needed was the ability to conquer the limitations of space and time.

That was writing, which emerged everywhere that agriculture began and involved symbols to transmit information over greater distances and with more permanence. Symbols, Dr. Poe said, could have been used as early as speech, but writing was not really natural and rather few within an early society ever learned to write. Moreover, most people did not read or did not like to read (Dr. Poe noted that Americans today claim to read only one book a year, and are likely to be lying about even that amount of reading).

Printing was an advance over writing, allowing for even wider distribution of information, but Dr. Poe maintained that it was not the democratizing influence that many have pictured it as being. Like writing, printing could have been done long before the era of Gutenberg. The Romans had movable type, he said, but they used it to imprint the names of emperors on sewer pipes. Printing was used by elites (commoners did not own presses) producing information for other elites (Gutenberg printed his Bibles on expensive vellum).

Television, on the other hand, was a tremendous democratizing influence, being easily available because of the technique of broadcasting information. It was easy to understand; even children who could not read or write loved it, and human beings seem to have a special love for watching and listening.

The Internet was even more democratizing. As with printing, the technology for the Internet was there before it was invented, in the form of ARPANet, developed for use by the Department of Defense and which initially prohibited personal messages, commercial use, and political use. Today the Internet, freed from those restrictions, is almost ubiquitous, providing remarkably inexpensive means to transmit any sort of information, and smartphones are rapidly becoming the way people use the Internet. The smartphone incorporates all previous forms of communication — speech, through chat rooms and text messages (and even telephoning); writing, through e-mail; print, through blogs; and audio/visuals through YouTube — and all these forms can be produced on the smartphone itself by the owner of the smartphone for use by others with similar devices.

Poe suggests that by selection pressure, a force that causes a particular organism to evolve in a certain direction, humans have gone from various advancing mediums of communication in order to satisfy their natural needs to express themselves, communicate, and gather information. He gives the example that people in solitary confinement often go crazy.

Speaking of the implications for education, Dr. Poe said, “The lecture as such is pretty much dead.” For transmission of information between scholars, nothing is better than reading and writing, he maintained, but they are not the best ways to present information to students. He cited his own experience: since putting his lectures on the Russian Revolution online, he no longer has to spend time repeating the content of the lectures but can better spend the time talking about that content. This, he said, frees teachers from the rote part of learning (and students love to watch videos, he added).

Dr. Poe took several questions from the audience after his lecture and most of his answers elaborated on points he had made earlier. The opening question was different — couldn’t the Internet be used as an agency of tyranny by a government? Dr. Poe admitted that a government could with enormous expenditures of energy and resources do so, but he maintained that the Internet is basically uncontrollable.

Dr. Poe is a former writer and editor for The Atlantic Monthly and the author or editor of several books, including A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, The Russian Elite in the Seventeenth Century, and The Russian Moment in World History. He has been a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Harriman Institute, and the Kennan Institute. He is best-known, however, as the founder and editor of the podcast website “New Books in History,” which brings interviews with historians to popular audiences.

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