Email and ipads in ancient Rome?

I spent a day with IT4Arts, the London City-based Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (a Guild) which provides free advice and training for non-for-profit Arts organisations such as the Screendance Journal, but also big established institutions such as, the Roundhouse, the Royal Albert Hall, Tate, and BBC etc.

A most fascinating talk was given by Tom Standage from The Economist, author of Writing on the Wall (2013). Applying current, social media vocabulary to the means of communication amongst the Romans and in the Middle Ages, he argued basically that they had networks of communication that functioned much like our social media, with messages and news that were sent from person to person, and with news that were trending across networks and others that faded away quickly.

According to Standage there are three phases of media development, with Really Old Media from 60BC through to 1833, Old Media until 2000, and New Media since then. The Really Old Media included paintings as a form of selfies, letters on papyrus delivered by slaves and copied to others as a sort of email equivalent, a whole system of messengers (tabelari) as broadband, and a culture of copying books and adding books to personal libraries as an equivalent to person to person distribution. An example of a social media savvy person as suggested by Standage is the Evangelist Paul, who wrote letters to key churches, such as his letter to the Colossians, knowing that they would be copied time and again until eventually every church would hold a copy and hear about his ideas. Strategic blogging and tweeting, in other words, is not exactly a new idea.

No doubt there were significant changes with the invention of the Gutenberg’s printing press with movable types in around 1450, but the changes were gradual. Initially any printing was small scale and served mainly to amplify the person to person distribution. For example, when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in protest against the Pope’s selling off of indulgences – which supposedly saved people from going to purgatory and which Luther saw as a complete con – he discovered the power of printed distribution. His first theses were written in Latin, addressing the more learned people and thereby limiting the readership. Noting the considerable interest in his theses Luther then translated them into a form of German, and it took a mere two weeks for the theses to be distributed around the whole of Germany. (A little side effect was that this nationwide distribution established a common German language.) According to Standage, Luther’s thesis can count as an excellent example of peer-to-peer distribution.

As Standage proposed, later historical social media phenomena were, for example, the coffee houses of the 1600s, which acted as debating chambers and thrived on the buzz created by the newly imported coffee. The Tudors had a thing called the commonplace books, which were personal diaries of sorts and used for noting poems and ideas. The commonplace books were shown to friends for the purpose of sharing inspiration and for copying. Occasionally, Standage added, they were circulated amongst several authors as in the court of Anne Boleyn and served to speculate and to ‘gossip’ on who was whose lover etc.

Only in 1833, Standard argued, did the press achieve the kind of mass distribution we know today, which established a radically different, controlling, and top-down circulation of the news. While in Luther’s time small printers would print, for example, a 1000 copies and remunerate the author by handing him 100 of those, from the 1800s the press was owned by the very wealthy who impose their own version of the news, temporarily overriding social media circuits.

Standage concluded that the social networks of the Really Old Media had essentially allowed for the same kind of synchronisation of opinions we experience today with twitter, blogging and Facebook, and which underpin events like the Arab Spring. Hence, the ‘new social media’ must be considered as a revival of ancient horizontal distribution systems. Current social media have amplified the reach and speed of communication  through new technologies, but they are not a new phenomenon as such. The old coffee houses – hotbeds of ideas and centres of innovation – meanwhile morphed, over time, into new kinds of businesses like insurance brokers, and fuelled collaborations and scientific discoveries.

All of this reminds me that getting together, talking and sharing ideas is absolutely vital for any culture. That was precisely the situation at the beginning of the screendance venture, when Doug Rosenberg, Katrina McPherson and I secured the funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for an international Network in Screendance. The Network fund allowed us to gather a set of key people and to meet twice a year, either in the US or the UK, and to spend a few days together talking. Most crucially the Network fund had not required us to predetermine what exactly we were going to do together! Out of these intensive encounters then came the idea, that we needed a dedicated platform for the publication of debates in the field of Screendance, and that led, a mere six months later, to the launch of the Screendance Journal. It is a great shame that nowadays days most funding proposals require a fully formed plan of action and a whole set of outcomes before one has even started meeting. This disregards how ideas are formed, and how people become productive. Three cheers for the AHRC for keeping up the Network Grant.

For videos of the IT4Arts talks see Information Technologists

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