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Oracles Past and Present: Our Means of Managing Information

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Bright ideas/iStock.

Our ability to find and share information today is potentially limitless. But how did we get here? From cave paintings to the iPad—how does human innovation bring us here?

Go Ask the Oracle

We live in an amazing time: We never have to wait to know. At this very moment you could be on a smart mobile device, in which you have available nearly the sum of all human knowledge at your fingertips —think of the means you have in your pocket!

I’m willing to bet our capacity to find and share information would make citizens of the Ancient World jealous. When the mysteries of the world still loomed large, people from all walks of life travelled great distances—or sent delegates—to seek answers from a source that they believed was plugged into the Universe: Oracles.. First, they had to get to the Oracle, which in itself was a challenge because travel wasn’t easy. Then they had to present their case to priests who would determine if the question was worthy of the Oracle. So they could have travelled all that way for nothing because the priests could turn them away. If the question was approved, however, then they were prepped to meet the Oracle, and the gift accepted. Only after being properly prepared, were they granted an audience with the Oracle so they could pose your question. Travelers were then supposed to go home and implement whatever edict she had issued. And there was no real guarantee of success—there was always a small chance that they had misunderstood the Oracle and did something wrong, and then their efforts would be for naught.

The Rise of New Oracles

Understanding the ritual of information consumption.

Getting answers is a formulaic process consisting of three parts: posing a question, identifying sources, and sharing understanding. It required planning and could be a dangerous pursuit. She (and it was always typically a she), had all the answers. She could tell you why your crops failed, why you were having trouble conceiving, whether you would be victorious in battle, and more. Whatever your question, the Oracle could probably give you an answer. Our technological means of knowing have rendered the Oracles of old mute.

Things have changed, but the idea of the Oracle hasn’t really disappeared. We’ve created new oracles—portable oracles that we can carry in our pockets, and they are far more powerful than their human predecessors from the Ancient World because they draw on the sum of all human knowledge. The Pythia, the voice of the Delphic Oracle, was a seat of influence, but the devices that we carry today—our tablets, and smartphones, and laptops—work to empower us. The ritual of information consumption has been revised for the modern age, distributing the power that comes with access to information widely.

Think about it: you have a question, you awaken a display, touch it in predetermined ways, and it gives you an answer because “there’s an app for that”—particularly if you own a specific brand of oracle. We have been doing this in some way since we first began to search for and record information.

Making a Point

Language may have freed hands for other purposes. Photo taken at AMNH.

We don’t quite know what the earliest forms of communication looked or sounded like, but it seems probable that elements of gestures and speech were the means by which our earliest ancestors shared information with each other. Some researchers believe that gestures (e.g., pantomime and protosigns) may have preceded speech and played a role in its emergence. Known as the Gestural Theory of Language, this hypothesis maintains gestures may be an important part of language skills because:

  • The proximity of regions in the brain associated with language and a grasping motion are very close, and when one is damaged, the other can be affected, impacting the ability to produce signed languages.
  • Gestures are common to many species of monkeys and apes, even though usage seems to vary between captive and wild groups. For example, captive gorillas use at least 30 different gestures, but we know little about their gestures in the wild because they aren’t easily studied. Chimpanzees have a very large repertoire of gestures in captivity, but only about a dozen have been recorded in the wild.

Gestures don’t always get the point across, however, which is where speech becomes helpful. While little is known about what early speech may have actually sounded like, early human ancestors would have been capable of producing rudimentary speech sounds between 2.5 – 0.8 million years ago. This period covers the Australopithecines (e.g., Lucy) to Homo ergaster. These protolanguages would have lacked the rich traits of modern languages, such has a fully developed syntax, tenses and auxiliary verbs, and closed class vocabulary, including determiners, conjunctions, and pronouns. We can speculate that they probably were little more than utterances—sounds associated with specific scenarios or experiences. Whatever their form, these protolanguages would have possibly filled a gap reflecting the demands of group life our early ancestors may have experienced:

  • The rise of tool use would have meant that hands previously free for gesturing were now occupied with, well, tools.
  • For gestures to work, individuals need to see each other, but there are instances when you need to communicate with others outside of your visual range—what happens if your band-mate is collecting fruit and a predator is closing in on him? Pointing frantically doesn’t really seem all that helpful in that situation.
  • As social groups grew, cooperative efforts required greater coordination, and more defined commands than gestures alone would have allowed.

We know that protolanguages were likely possible among the Australopithecines and at least through Homo ergaster because their skeletons show evidence of being able to control breathing, which is important in the production of sound. However, additional morphological changes would have been necessary before more precise sounds could have been produced, such as the widening of the hypoglossal canal (the opening through which nerve that innervates the tongue passes). This change would have allowed for greater control over articulation, leading to the more complex combinations of sounds that would eventually give us modern speech. However, this doesn’t become possible until about 400,000 years ago when we start seeing anatomical patterns that are similar to modern-day humans.

Permanent Records

Painting at Lascaux/Wikimedia Commons

Gestures and speech represent one of the earliest examples of trying to share information. But a challenge inherent to this form of communication is permanence. Complex social arrangements require recorded information—it aids in socialization. Around 30,000 BCE, symbolic and pictorial representations begin to emerge: Early human ancestors begin to draw representations of their world. The Lascaux Caves in France are an example of this type of record, but this form of rock art can be found throughout the world. These drawings often depict local animals, including bison, horses, deer, and aurochs. But there are also more perceivably abstract pieces, such as outlines of hands. There are also examples of activities like as swimming, hunting, and drinking. And life events, such as childbirth.

This time period puts us near the end of the Stone Age. Anatomically modern humans were making tools, hunting, performing rituals, possibly even caring for the elderly, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was becoming fixed. They were likely engaged with the world in novel ways. By about 12,000 years ago, with the rise of the first agricultural societies, the communities that early Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans, lived in were likely becoming increasingly complex, which would have increased the need for more precise means of communication. We had probably moved beyond the utterances of protolanguages at this point, but were still dealing with the issue of permanence—and interpretation. Rock art generates a subjective experience. Think of viewing your favorite paintings: how you interpret an image may not be the same as how a friend interprets the image. There isn’t a predefined code that is easily determined from the viewing.

Writing systems begin to emerge around the 4th millennium BC with the rise of early civilizations. Writing allows for the creation of official records—births, deaths, grain stores, and of course, laws. Writing establishes fact for social orders. But it’s not necessarily a portable feature at this time. Cuneiform and, eventually, hieroglyphics were engraved on clay tablets, which were probably kept in central areas or strategically distributed. However, as social groups spread over larger areas, humans were faced with sharing information over distances. The ancient Egyptians begin to use papyrus, and then scrolls and rolls to record and share information in a highly portable format.

Early Telecommunication?

This isn’t necessarily a unique challenge to this particular point in human history. After all, fire and smoke signals, and possible drums or some other auditory signals, were probably long in use, but the challenge of this age is communicating precisely over distance because people are moving around. As early civilizations give way to the empires of the ancient world, sharing information over distance continues to be a pressing issue that drives innovation. For example, mail and pigeon-post are in place by the 6th- and 5th- centuries BC respectively. Pharaohs used couriers to transmit their notices, and the Romans used pigeons to deliver missives during battle. During the 4th-century BC, the Greeks were using something called a hydraulic semaphore system to send messages during the conflicts. This was somewhat of a relay system between two points involving a beacon, and the coordinated efforts between two sentinels to transfer a code. The synchronization between the two points was important as the content of the message depended on it.

These examples demonstrate some of the ways people are trying to obtain and share information in our early history. There is a great deal of waiting involved, and information is neither cheap to produce nor obtain. Considerable skill is required for rock art, and an investment of time and tools are required for proto-writing efforts, as well as early telecommunication attempts (mail and pigeon-post, and the other distance technologies). Over the next centuries, these sorts of methodologies are refined: messengers travel by horses and carriages instead of on foot, pigeons are better trained, and signals are conveyed using light and flags and fire [video].

However, these methods are still relatively slow. The written word remains popular, and people send letters to remain connected to one another, but consuming information is still difficult. What I mean is that it may be common practice to post laws or other news concerning the state in a common place, but there were issues with legibility and access. After all, there was no guarantee that everyone could reach the posting or even that they could read it. Scribes in charge of transcribing—and sometimes translating this information—had different styles and different handwritings. And they could only reproduce a limited number of pieces within a given time frame, even with the rapid spread of moveable type processes developed by the Chinese as early as the 2nd-century.

The use of heralds to announce public decrees also assumed the people would visit the locality where the news was being shared. In many ways, people are used to traveling to information centers—they were responsible for seeking out information, which is part of the reason Oracles become popular during this time as people seek ways of knowing.

Overall people are looking for and sharing information and in doing so they’re generating meaningful communities of shared interests. States of power grow from these shared interests. The art of communication lays a foundation for a consensus between the individual and the group, which in turn forms the basis for cultural identity—a shared understanding that binds diverse elements together in a larger social order. However, in these early days the flow of communication is severely impaired. Information is carefully curated, and is shared by particularly views that can only be questioned in very limited ways.

Sharing What We Know

Not until 1440, when German Johannes Gutenberg develops a printing press does information become both more readily accessible and shareable. Information is portable, but our need to know continually drives us to seek faster access and means of contact. Why? It helps maintain our social networks. Protolanguage efforts may have been spurred by social developments within group life: Being able to alert a group member of a lurking or impending danger strengthens that connection, both to the other individual and to the group. But we also want the means to know more quickly.

And it takes us some time, but the 19th-century sees the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio. The 20th-century gives us television, computers and ultimately the Internet, and the rise of mobile devices capable of wielding the power of the Internet to connect and inform. It would seem that we have finally dealt with the issue of access and sharing. Our networks are robust and healthy, and we seem to constantly be engaged in the give and take of information sharing and consumption that is vital to the continuation of group life.

Refining the Ritual

But online communication, also known as computer-mediated communication or CMC, is not without its own challenges. Personal interaction has always been an important part of the connections important to communication. One of the biggest criticisms of DMC has been the lack of nonverbal cues, which are an important indicator to the speaker’s meaning, particularly when the speaker’s message is ambiguous. Email communicators are all too familiar with this issue. After all, in speech the same statement can have multiple meanings depending on tone, expression, emphasis, inflection, and gesture. Speech conveys not only what is said, but how it is said—and consequently, reveals a bit of the speaker’s mind to interested parties. In a plain-text environment like email, only the typist knows whether a statement should be read with sarcasm. The history of communication has been concerned with sharing meaning in as precise as possible a way.

To help resolve ambiguity, tech-savvy users turned to emoticons: “glyphs, usually representing stylized facial expressions, created mainly from short sequences of punctuation marks and are designed to convey an emotional tone in email.” The emergence of emoticons reminds us of the importance of interpreting social data in social life. We spend a great deal of our lives online—from shopping, to banking, to emails, to online gaming networks, such as World of Warcraft, and virtual communities, like SecondLife—and our need for precision and understanding remains unchanged. Emoticons have been one solution to this problem. The website Emoticon Universe lists over 300 emoticons. These numerous symbols help us express ourselves online and suggest a need to make ourselves understood in the virtual arena.

Modern Challenges

New form, same oracle/Jeff Seeger, CC.

The issue of access also warrants consideration. Without proper education on the use of digital tools, a growing divide between two technological classes is likely to increase: those with access to information would be at a greater advantage than those without without. Those with access, just as those who were able to generate utterances when it mattered, are able to situate themselves within a more secure network—one that is more aware of the individual member and can span a vast geographic range. Having the means to access information on the Internet goes just beyond access to the hardware; it also depends on the individual’s ability to understand how to use the tools at her disposal. And as digital technologies become prevalent, individuals who can successfully manage digital media will be at an advantage in terms of accessing and processing information, managing networks, and sharing data. We should also be actively considering the double digital divide—not only do we need to bridge the gap in access to technology, but at the same time, we need to educate users on how to utilize digital tools to their fullest potential.

Information Through the Ages

We live in Information Age. Typically linked to the rise of the personal computer, which has led us in part to the prominence of the mobile device and our pocket oracles, the Information Age refers to the ability of individuals to transfer information freely, and to have instant access to knowledge that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously. It opens the door for communication to occur with few limitations. But what if we considered that the Information Age may have been unfolding for a much longer period? It’s true that we can transfer information and have instant access to data and knowledge at unimaginable speeds, but we have been working to this point as a species since those first gestures led to utterances and then to rock art.

Egyptian hieroglyphics/Wikimedia

Perhaps the Anthropocene, the age of human activity, is more broadly the Information Age. We have been trying to share our views of the world at least since our evolutionary ancestors took paint to the walls of remote caves. And if language emerged as proposed, then we may have been trying to impart our sense of the world even longer. We’ve done this for the benefit of the network—to ensure our group membership. But the challenge has always been inclusion, which remains the challenge of the double digital divide. We’ve seen the power of inclusion in the new media of communication. The social channels of Twitter and Facebook have been instrumental in recent revolutions and as points of activism. There have always been those who have been excluded from the consumption of information. However, the tools at our disposal may mean that this doesn’t have to be the case.

Ed Note: This post is based on a talk I gave during Internet Week New York in June 2011.



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Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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