Bandstands, Bandwidth, and Business Communication: Technology and the Sanctity of Writing
Bowman, Joel P., Klopping, Inge, Business Communication Quarterly
It has become commonplace to recognize that we have entered an "Information Age" in which technology is changing communication media at virtually an exponential rate. Studies of the impact of the new technologies on communication abound. Because that technology is everywhere and because of the rapid rate of change, however, it is easy to forget that the technology we currently rely on for much of our communication (and for so much more) is new to human evolution. Table 1 provides a quick overview of the history of human communication and communication technology.
Advances in civilization have typically been marked by increases in the capacity to store, transmit, and retrieve information. In 1973, French economist Georges Anderla estimated the growth of knowledge for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development using the known scientific facts of the year 1 AD to represent one unit of collective human knowledge. As have most scholars, Anderla assumed that collective learning began with language. He estimated that it had taken humanity approximately 50,000 years to accrue the first unit. Anderla calculated that humanity had doubled its knowledge by 1500. By 1750 it had doubled again, and by 1900 it had doubled again to 8 units. The next doubling took 50 years, and the one after that took only ten. The study ended in 1973, when we had accumulated 128 units of knowledge (Anderla, 1973).
[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]
Although information and knowledge are not identical, the general trend is clear: information and the capacity of the technology required to store, transmit, and retrieve it are increasing at virtually an exponential rate. Nevertheless, as we consider the impact of Information Technology (IT) on communication in general and business communication in particular, it is important to recognize that we have spent far more time communicating nonverbally than we have communicating orally, and we have spent far more time communicating orally than we have in writing. Our evolutionary history includes approximately 150,000 years of experience with preverbal communication before language existed and approximately 55,000 years of verbal communication, of which only the last 5,000 or 6,000 years have included reading and writing. In other words, we have been communicating in writing for a mere 3 percent of our existence. Further, for most of that time, only a small percentage of humanity has had any degree of literacy. The vast majority of humans who have ever lived have relied on nonverbal or oral communication to convey even the most critical information, whether about daily survival or tribal history. We tend to forget that "in the beginning was the Word," and that until the word existed, there was no beginning. Human history begins with language.
For most of that history, the amount of information that could be transmitted was based on what could be spoken, heard, and remembered. Until horses were domesticated, transmission of information from place to place was limited to the speed at which a human could travel and the amount he or she could remember. Stories and metaphors helped ensure that what was important for individual and tribal survival was remembered. Just as tribal elders had been revered for their ability to recount the history of their people, itinerant poets and messengers were highly valued for their ability to remember and recount large amounts of information. Mass communication consisted of what could be delivered by a speaker from the cultural equivalent of a bandstand. In the beginning, the tribe would gather around the campfire, and the elders would tell the important stories.
Paper-based writing and travel by horseback and sailing vessel increased the amount of information transmitted and the speed of its transmission. In part because so few had learned to read and write, the written word was viewed as essentially sacred, and priests and scribes were typically among the first to learn to read and write. …