The Mega Foundation

Cultural Evolution

February 17, 2005

The Introduction of Speech

    One of the landmarks in human cultural evolution must have been the invention of language. Prior to the development of speech, the passing of lessons-learned to the next generation could have only been accomplished by example alone ("monkey see, monkey do"). Language would have made possible the transmission of lore to the next generation by word-of-mouth. Language would have greatly expanded the ability to teach the young. (The best guess at the present time is that human speech developed around 40,000 B. C., and that it coincides with the burial of the dead with "grave goods"... a ritual not attributed to the Neanderthals).
The Invention of the Written Word
    The next major milestone in this progression must have been the invention of writing, occurring independently in several centers of civilization. Writing must have enabled a much more extensive hand-off of knowledge than was possible with speech, and rote memory. The first writing on clay tablets and in hieroglyphics were the province of priesthoods, and involved difficulty and expense. The Egyptian enlistment of papyrus opened the door to cheaper scrolls, although parchment was still a mainstay until the invention of paper by the Chinese, and its introduction into Europe in the late 1200's.
The Invention of Paper and the Printing Press 
    The next step in the chain is Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the modern printing press. Printing had existed since the ninth century A. D. in China, with the first movable clay type introduced in1041 A. D, but Asian printing was a government monopoly. Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable metal type, in addition to several other innovations, and ultimately, along with with the manufacture of paper, made books cheaply available to the masses. 
The Invention of Science
    It's probably in order to mention the invention of science, which must arguably rank as one of the great cultural inventions of all time.
Universal Public Education
    Universal public education, appearing for the most part in the 19th century, became a cornerstone of modern society. It extended reading, writing, and arithmetic to the commoner. Without it, our society couldn't function.
Public Libraries and 20th-Century Media
    The establishment of public libraries undoubtedly played an important role in making information widely available. Also, during the 20th century, telephones, movies, radio and television expanded the media by means of which information could be disseminated. People began to suffer from "information overload".
The Internet and Search Engines 
    Now a great new "intelligence amplifier" has arrived in the form of the Internet and its search engines. Suddenly, the world's knowledge is at our fingertips. Furthermore, everyone can become a publisher, not only electronically, but even in printed, graphical and video form.
    What's so significant about this is that it's a great leap forward in the rate at which humanity can progress. We're witnessing history in the making!
    Another by-product of this information revolution is that, in this knowledge industry, anyone can work from anywhere. We don't need to dwell in great conurbations: we can access the world's university libraries from a fragrant, bee-humming mountain meadow in Cade's Cove, Tennessee, or from a Laotian rice paddy.
What Next?
    It's hard for me to imagine, but here are a few possibilities.
Wideband Wireless
    One is the fact that within ten years, the Internet will be wideband wireless. We'll be able to access it just about any time, any place. Also, video telephony should be more common, and your cell phone will probably be a multipurpose device (as it often is now). TV programs will be available on your cell phone, perhaps using an optional projection system. Teenagers will probably play video games on their cell phones.
Direct Mental Interface
    It's already feasible to use a cell phone with an earbud and a microphone. Within twenty or thirty years, the present work with mental control of prosthetics might lead to a form of electronic telepathy, with a direct interface to the brain. But you'd certainly want a way to turn off your communicator and divert messages to an answering machine.
Better Search Techniques
    Another innovation would seem to be a search system that would allow you to explain what you're looking for, and then will tailor your search to find what you're really seeking.
Convergence of the Various Communication Conduits
    Right now, a battle royal is being waged over who will sell us our communication services. The Bell systems have dragged their feet with fiber-to-the-curb, and now, cable companies are eating their lunches. This donnybrook is primarily between telephone and cable companies, but it also includes satellite vendors. Cable companies can certainly offer telephone, television, and Internet services, and the telephone companies are scrambling to counter with television over our phone lines. In the end, though, telephone, cable television, and Internet service will probably be furnished by one or another of these vendors, rather than in the form of the separate services they tend to be today.
What Next, Indeed!
    It's been less than ten years since I first got on the Internet. The changes have already been monumental. It's hard to imagine what the next ten years will bring. Any ideas, anyone?


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