Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Rethinking normal 2: putting normal in a longer term perspective

Posted in book recommendations, reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on September 4, 2013

This is my second installment to a series on change, and more specifically about our understanding of what is normal, and how normal and assumable change (see Part 1: putting normal in perspective.) And in a fundamental sense this posting is also in effect a history of history, as the historical record began with the advent and dissemination of a once disruptively new technology – writing.

My goal for this posting is not to systematically outline in any way, our changing understanding of information and knowledge, or of how it is stored, conveyed or used. I would suggest a book recommendation for anyone seeking a discourse into these topic areas:

• Gleick, J. (2011) The Information. Pantheon Books.

as well as appropriate Wikipedia links to topics such as writing and printing, and of course the growing flood of more recent electronic and internet technology terms.

My goal here is much more limited – to touch upon and to provoke thinking about the changing nature of normal, through all of this history. And I begin by citing a translation of an Egyptian papyrus manuscript that I read a number of years ago, and that I find myself thinking back to now (see Egyptian hieroglyphs.) This, at least as of the time that my book of ancient document translations was assembled, was one of the oldest written records known, and that point is important here.

Before the written word, there was a long-standing oral tradition in which history and legend and myth, and cultural knowledge in general was passed down from generation to generation through memorization and recitation. Homer’s (Ὅμηρος – Hómēros) Iliad and Odyssey were passed down in this way for a millennium and more, slowly growing and evolving through that long process until the first written copies of these works were recorded – and what could be seen as final and official versions came into being. Many peoples and many cultures and traditions have used this approach to develop and maintain their history and knowledge, and both of who they were and what they know, and for sharing an ongoing understanding of their place in the universe. The ancient Egyptians maintained this type of rich oral tradition of knowledge preservation and sharing too. And this brings me to that ancient papyrus scroll. Its author, apparently, was a transition figure who began his life of scholarship by learning and memorizing word for word, from his people’s rich oral tradition so that he could recite these stories and histories and this knowledge and keep it fresh and alive – and so he could in turn teach what he knew to others so they could repeat what he had done and maintain this tradition. But at some point he learned to write too – he learned this still rare and new technology, or at the very least he shared his words and ideas with a scribe who did. This manuscript was very brief, but its message still resonates. The interlocutor, if not writer, lamented that the young people who he would see the most hope in, for learning and memorizing and for maintaining his people’s oral traditions were learning to write instead. He lamented that this means they would never really develop their memories as they would rely on always being able to go back to some written record that would remember for them.

When everything was hand written and when anything so written was likely to remain as a single manuscript copy until damaged or lost, or until its scroll was scrubbed clean and reused, this form of long term storage and knowledge maintenance was somewhat unreliable. Few manuscripts were widely copied and geographically dispersed – leading to more robust capacity for long term survival of their content. Good papyrus and later good paper were scarce for a long time and we even have a term for their cleaning and reuse: palimpsest. But this is beside the point. Normal for this scholar meant lifelong rote memorization and a tradition of public recitation and sharing and of training a next generation to do the same. This new technology was viewed at least by people of this tradition as disruptively dangerous and as a distinct threat to their way of life. And that was some 54 centuries ago if my memory serves me correctly on this: at approximately 3,400 BCE.

Our understanding of normal and of what that means changes, and it has been changing for a long, long time. Technological change brings with it and even compels change in the people who use it and in the people who are just influenced by it as well. It challenges and changes their expectations and perceptions, and that can be met by acceptance or resistance, or by ambivalence and a more mixed response. The old tradition scholar of my ancient Egyptian example most have felt a measure of ambivalence even as he excoriated writing as a harmer of youth; he did after all, put his words and thoughts in that new technological form and in writing.

Much of the technology of writing and then of printing that have followed this, have sought to address the challenges that I noted above with regard to so much being recorded on that single vulnerable copy on papyrus or early paper. Much of this has represented advancement in the ubiquity and availability of what is known and of how it is recorded, and much has involved steadily and progressively making copies of what is written and printed more inexpensively and more openly and widely available. And with that I cut ahead in this narrative, bypassing certainly much of the past one thousand years of information technology history with the advent of the printing press and of the movable type printing press and so much more. I simply note, by way of fleeting example, that when the movable type printing press and its technology first appeared in Europe, its impact profoundly changed the course of history there, and global history as well. And with that, I cut ahead to the here and now and to the past few decades.

My reason for this is simple. My focus here is on normal, and on how it is seen and understood and on how any challenge to an accepted normal has impact. And the development of electronic technology-based information systems have accelerated the pace of overall change in what normal means, and at a rate never before seen, and certainly throughout the span of our historical records.

Normal used to change slowly enough so that it would seem all but eternal for most people, except perhaps at watershed moments such as when writing was invented and when it first really made its presence known, or when the movable type printing press was invented and came into use. But normal for our grandparents, for most of human history, would seem normal to us too and would prove normal for our children and grandchildren too.

This has changed, and we are living through a period in which normal visibly changes and for essentially everyone and even several and even many times within any one lifetime. This is new. This, in fact is unprecedented in the sweep of human experience. And I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will at least begin to discuss this period of hyper-change and of the visibly evolving normal. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Reexamining the Fundamentals.

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