Social impact of the written word

Part two on paradigm shifts in mass communication

Last week, I stopped on our history tour of mass communication at the introduction of the written word six millennia ago calling the paradigm shift from oral tradition to writing as incredibly significant.  Let's put that into context.

When we think of mass communications today, it used to be controlled by the mass media industry.  You could buy an ad, or hire a publicist and get a bunch of information out to a large number of people, most of whom you did not know.  With social media, you control not only the content, but largely the audience.  The impact of social media to our society today, is comparable to the development of writing in the ancient world.

With the oral tradition, you could pass information on to individuals or groups, but the interpretation of that information was in constant flux, depending on the memory of the communicators.  Writing made it possible to have a record of that information that was free of interpretation and recall.  Now, when you wanted to send birthday greetings to uncle Abraham in Mesopotamia, you didn't have to ask the guy heading there to say it for you, you could put it down on paper and send him your exact sentiments.  A deeper connection was made between you and your uncle.  What's more, that connection could be made public and saved for posterity.  What's more, you could do the same with massive numbers of people at one time: clear, accurate communication.

As I mentioned, when all this began, this new communication "technology" was owned by bean counters.  It was strictly a method for maintaining records and inventories, just as the Internet was created by the US Department of Defense to keep track of military research programs.  But something happened around 2,000 years later:  Someone realized you could start recording things other than lists.  You could start recording stories.  And what stories are we talking about?  Myth and history.

Thus was born organized religion.

Priests and shamans through most of history were the main storytellers of their communities and each one had his own interpretation of the spiritual content of society.  But when these guys figured out they could standardize that content, debates came into what that content should actually be.  Standards arose and heresy identified.  The knowledge of good and evil could be codified.  This was the time that the bean counters were brought into the priesthood, or burned at the stake.  Religion slowly began to take over control of mass communication and the phrase "it is written" became the end of all discussion.  

Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Many people learned how to read and write, mostly in the upper classes, but no one really wanted to job of laboriously copying every piece of written communication deemed to be important.  It was an important job, but it took away from eating, drinking and sex.  Since the priests weren't really supposed to be doing that, it became a a valuable skill and one that was profitable for all religion.  Eventually, the priestly class split out an entire group called scribes and also volunteered to handle the teaching of written language ... for a fee, of course. 

This went on for centuries and involved every major religion that survives today and it was important to their survival.  For example, everyone likes to talk about the Druids and pagan beliefs prior to the advent of Christianity, but no one really knows that much about them.  Why? Because there is no written record about what they believed.  The Druids were the cultural glue of the Celtic nations all over Europe and when Rome wanted to take over those lands, they merely killed every Druid they could find.  Without the Druids' oral tradition, social cohesion broke down and the Celts were eventually defeated.  This was especially crucial to a small island off the west coast of Europe known as Ireland.  We'll pick up here next week.