Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

75[TH] Anniversary Reprint the Information Environment

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

75[TH] Anniversary Reprint the Information Environment

Article excerpt

Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication that control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, message networks, or media of communication; taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities that will emerge.

For example, there are people, like the aborigines, whose repertoire of communication possibilities consists almost entirely of talking to each other, face to face. The word is never isolated from the body that produces it. There is, therefore, always an immediate and specific context in which meaning is shared. Feedback is never an issue: communication always includes response. This situation gives both their interactions and their thought a high degree of subjectivity, spontaneity, and emotion. But it does not provide an occasion or stimulus for sustained speculation. Without disembodied words there is no disinterested thought. Everyone is, so to speak, an existentialist.

Introduce hieroglyphics or, if you can imagine it, a tape recorder to such people and you will alter their information environment, and with it, the sort of people they will be. When a medium of communication has the power to disembody words, to split them away from their original source, the psychological and social effects of language are forever changed. In such an environment, language becomes something more than a mode of communication. It becomes an object of contemplation. One may look at it, as in a mirror, and study how it is put together, with the result that the mind itself may become an object of contemplation. At which point philosophers (not to mention grammarians) must emerge to reflect on reflection and on what might be the connection between language and reality. Everyone may become a Platonist.

Or this may happen: Let us assume an aborigine has conceived of a way to chisel a message on stone. The message being more durable than its author, it will become more important than he, and will be read and reread over centuries. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if readers not only dispute the meaning of the message but ponder the meaning of time, and then of mortality itself. It is in fact not uncommon for people whose messages have endured, unchanging, for centuries to become obsessed with time, as were the ancient Egyptians and the Mayans.

And this may happen, too: A few will learn the symbols in which the message is encoded, and most will not. Thus, the few will be in possession of information to which the many have no access. The few will have, or seem to have (which is the same thing in this case), enormous and secret powers. Thus, priests will emerge to whom special privileges will be given and in whom there will reside special powers of explanation and authority.

And suppose it happens that someone, through accident or design, discovers that messages do not need to be chiseled in stone but can be scratched on a leaf or a reed. To be sure, not a very durable medium but one that can be carried far and wide and with considerable speed.

Perhaps then the obsession with time will recede, to be replaced by a fascination with the mysteries of space. Thus, explorers and conquerors may emerge, and messages will tell of things happening in other places but maintain silence on what has happened in other times.

I shall not speak here of what may happen if you introduce television to a culture such as ours. What I wish to explore is the idea that the means by which people communicate comprise an environment just as real and influ-ential as the terrain on which they live. And further: that when there occurs a radical shift in the structure of that environment this must be followed by changes in social organization, intellectual predispositions, and a sense of what is real and valuable. …

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