Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Thoughts on technology and the evolution of political, cultural, social and religious forms (Part 3)

Part 2

Daniel Dennett proposed in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that variation, selection and heredity necessarily give rise to evolution; the emergence of order and structure without a guiding intelligence. Long before Dennett published this insight, McLuhan saw modern education, democracy and the nation state as products of evolution brought about by the development of two technologies: the phonetic alphabet and the printing press. The phonetic alphabet enabled large numbers of people to become literate. The printing press made possible large numbers of copies of books and other writings. The two together made it possible to standardize knowledge in large populations and create imagined communities of people who took in their information from common sources —newspapers, periodicals, journals and books.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote:
The availability of cheap writing materials affected power in the Mediterranean. The Romans depended on papyrus from Egypt. When the supply was cut off by the Muslims, they lost control of the Mediterranean. Parchment was too expensive and the influence of Byzantium was limited. Only when paper was imported from China did learning revive, and the result was the Renaissance and eventually printing.
Technological innovations change the way people interact and the changes are not always welcome. Socrates, as Plato presents him in Phaedrus, expresses reservations about the technology of writing, saying that writing:
…is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Similar concerns have been voiced about the book, about newspapers, as well as the telephone, the computer and many other inventions.

Part 4