A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

No Neanderthal Mime Can Run That Fast

Okay, take a look at this.  If we look at the history of communication in human culture over the last 100,000 years, we see an obvious trend towards higher message speed and greater area of effect.  (If we call the "area of effect" the "force" of the idea, we could borrow from physics and note the speed x force = Power.  This means we could talk about the "power" of a message.  That's something worth getting back to, but I don't want to go all physicky right now.)

On some day 100,000 years ago there was some important information that needed to go around like "don't drink the water, it is bad".  I'm almost certain that at some place on the globe 100,000 years ago someone somewhere was warning someone else not to drink the water.  But even if that is not true, lets assume it is for now.  Small band of nomads putting down stakes and trying to make a go of it in farming.  Little House on the Prairie, Neanderthal Edition.  Only something pollutes the water.  Someone gets sick.  The clan genius determines it is the water.  Now if this were Neanderthal science fiction, the nerdy Neanderthal would run around warning everyone and no one would listen and the whole clan would die.   No one ever listens to the scientists in science fiction. Probably has something to do with how the nerds who write these books feel about the way society treats them.   Yeah, off topic, I know.  Look, it's my blog.  But you're right.  Neanderthal science fiction has nothing to do with communication and thinking.

And you know what, while we're on the topic of being off topic, I may as well point out that Neanderthals were probably hunter gatherers and likely didn't do much farming, northern ice age snow people that they were (although they did cook vegetables).  So the notion that Ma and Pa Neanderthal settled down to do some farming is ridiculous.  The sentence should read.  "Little House on the Prairie, Homo Sapiens Edition."  But we're all Homo Sapiens.  So that doesn't really convey the long time ago feeling I was going for.  100,000 years ago there were both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals moving about, but only the Homo Sapiens were farming.  So, no, it's not accurate.  But this isn't a science report, it's a long (and terribly off topic) exposition on the changing nature of communication.  And it only get's longer when I stop to get technical, so I'm not gonna do that.  Cuz you know what?  There was no Neanderthal science fiction either!

So the water is bad and nerdy genius Neanderthal does what?  Jumps on his blog and warns everyone? Takes out a classified ad?  Activates the emergency broadcast system? No.  He probably just tells someone.  Neanderthal language was primitive, but even in the unlikely event that it couldn't express information as basic as "water bad" he could pantomime it.

The point is he could communicate this important information, but not very efficiently.  Maybe there would be a group mime meeting at night at the fire and they could all start off with the warning about the water before practicing being blown away by imaginary wind or trampled by invisible Mastodons.  Yeah, mime was different back then.

But more than likely there were basic words for good and bad and for water and food, so "water bad" seems like a pretty easy message to sell even 100,000 years ago.

Fast forward (please) to a time when written language is in wide spread use.  The written word itself goes back to about 3000 BC.  But we're going to skip over all that and jump to a time well after the the printing press was invented and into a period when newspapers and pamphlets were being produced.  Why the huge jump?  Well this particular example relies on ways to get messages out to ordinary citizens, and so even while we could assume that someone somewhere could post a sign at the bad watering hole saying, well, "bad watering hole" we could get into some pretty crazy distractions about whether the average person could read such a sign or whether they may rely on symbols to convey what was bad or taboo and frankly it is just not that important.  What is clear is that communicating the basic safety message was time consuming yet essential.  Whatever method they may have used, it would have been local and relied on a mix of verbal and symbolic information.

So that is why we are jumping to 1770 in the good ole U.S. of... err, the colonies.

Now if we assume that some well or stream had been determined to be unhealthy we could actually imagine a public notice might be posted or at the very least a mention of the issue could take place in the local newspaper.

Now, you might think you know where this whole thing is going, but you may be a little surprised at the end.

It is clear what I am describing is that over the history of communication, messages become more efficient.  The speed of information improves as does its reach.  Where the Neanderthals had to rely on word of mouth spread one-to-one or one-to-many if they were at a fireside mime meeting, the colonists could rely on both word of mouth and the one-to-many channel of the newspaper or public bulletin.

So of course we need to take a second to look at the time involved in spreading the message via newspaper.  In a minimum of a day or two and sometimes several days longer, the information could be reported to the editor, included in the paper, and distributed to the readership.  Considering that many hundreds of people could all be warned about the same thing in this time, this is quite an improvement over Neanderthal Marcel Marceau, fake drinking, doing the international sign for choking, hopping from one foot to the other, and falling down and playing dead.

In just over 100,000 years we made some decent progress in getting the word out.

But then something happened.  It turns out that getting the word out more quickly -- that is, increasing the speed of communication -- has a drastic impact on the rate of science progress.  When scientists around the world can share ideas more quickly, the technology which is a result of that science improves more rapidly as well (to say nothing of the role of faster communication in improving education).  Technological progress has a tendency to beget more progress for a number of reasons. Not the least of these is Recursion.  But for our purposes it is interesting to look at how technological progress produced faster and more effective ways to communicate.  From the printing press, to the telegraph, then telephone, radio, television, internet.  Sure, we all know the story by now.

But recently we've entered a new phase of this progress, and this is one that is not generally appreciated in its entirety.  The telephone provided for very fast one-to-one communication, and the overseas telephone call was a social breakthrough of the 20th century, joining people separated by huge distances in a very personal way that was orders of magnitudes better than the best one-to-one alternatives that preceded it, the telegraph and the posted letter.   And radio and television took the basic model of the newspaper's one-to-many form and blew the doors off of it.  Now thousands, even millions of people could be informed from one common source in real time.

In the early days of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, Gen. Normal Schwarzkopf told a reporter in a press conference, "We're getting our information from CNN just like everyone else."  Whether that was completely accurate is beside the point.  What his comment makes clear is that communication had come a long way since our colonial newspaper warning people not to drink from Miller's Brook.  In fact, in just 225 years, realtime combat information had gone from a guy riding on horseback yelling, "The British are coming!" to millions of people all over the globe getting live reports beamed via satellite from a battlefield thousands of miles away.

100,000 years to go from some Neanderthal grunting around the fire to a one-to-many model that informed hundreds or even thousands of readers at once with a message transmission time of just a couple days.  Then in less than 250 years, we have a one-to-many mode that informs millions of people at one time with a message transmission lag measured in minutes.  How can you get faster than that?

The answer when we return.

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