66 Throwing words and images at a distance

Posted on February 27, 2012 by

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(If anyone thinks writing about evolution in a diplomacy blog is far-fetched, I’ll point to Robert M. SAPOLSKI’s I/2006 article in Foreign Affairs on the “natural history of peace”)

We’ll never know for sure, but on the way to current preponderance in the world humankind took two unique steps.

First it learned to cook – cooking food over fire “allowed” our body to shorten the gut, freeing energy from digestion for cogitation. We needed that, for walking upright demands an enormous amount of analytical and coordinating brain-power lest we fall flat on our face. In the process of learning to walk upright, seeing, rather than smelling, become our primary way of “handling” our surroundings. Imaging the world in three dimensions is also comparatively brain-intensive (there are far more images than smells to be processed; and smell does not allow for much “positioning” in space, except by non-directional intensity).

Secondly, we learned to throw at a distance or target[1]. A well-placed stone killed Goliath, and many animals before that. Yes, I know, we’d started making tools before we threw them, but tools in a way are not as startling as throwing. For when we learned to throw effectively at a target, we changed the tool’s purpose, not its shape. Possibly for the first time we understood that we could have a goal and we could work toward it at a distance. We had to imagine acting at a distance. At the same time we moved from adaptive to purposeful action: instead of mere adaptation and improvement, we had a target which we could only hit or miss. To be effective a boomerang has to return to the one who launched it, not fall somewhere in the bush. And a javelin is worse than useless if it scares, rather than scores.

No other animal “throws” – though a few “drop” objects, and of course quite a few “squirt”, which is something in between. Maybe the odd ape pelts – but throwing? Our “willing at a distance” sure must have startled animals used to the safety of distance. Whether we startled large herbivores and carnivores into extinction will be debated for a few years yet – until our reading of DNA will allow us better to understand the process of their extinction. We did have a hand in it for sure.

Once we learned to throw, we got better and better at it – we designed tools to throw tools: the atlatl, then bow & arrow

The bow came probably later, for it had to combine string/strip with wood, and it also required intimation of the physics of the bow. The next step forward was to combine fire and throw – the gun and the rocket. We got quite skillful; we managed throws around the solar system and beyond.

We were not content with this result, though quite impressive. The conceptual step forward was to move from “one-thrower-one-target” to “one-thrower-many-targets” – what an improvement in effectiveness! We did it first by brawn (bombs); WWI was the first time where the new capacity of one individual hitting many targets in succession was acted out on a large scale. It was the war that enthroned the machine gun.

Communication on the other hand took a different and distinct path: it tried to breach the distance of time first, not space. Myths are information systems[2] for transmission to future generations – albeit difficult for us to understand because today we have lost the context as well as the knowledge systems in which the information lay embedded. The “song-lines” of Indigenous peoples of Australia[3] are possibly the most extensive such oral word/image system – it allowed them to thrive in a featureless continent with an inhospitable climate.

Memory was the tool of both dia- and meta-chronic transmission, with all its limitations. Writing stabilized the content, but “spreading” the content among contemporaries remained cumbersome, until we invented print. Communication leapfrogged weapons for the first time in “effectiveness”: with print “the one” could easily target “the many” – though it was still rather sequential.

When fire and communication joined up – figuratively – the link to the material support was broken. Using electric power “one-on-many” simultaneously replaced “one-on-one” – radio and TV. The next step was to move to “many-on-many” – internet had come to stay. Internet is instantly spreading ideas at a distance (well, mainly it is social chat, but that’s another story rooted in our apish origins).

Jus in bello – attempts to define and regulate the conduct of individuals, nations, and other agents in war and to mitigate the worst effects of war – are an attempt to put some order in the “throwing at a distance”, for if any weapon comes from any angle, war becomes unpredictable, and simply destructive. Rules about “throwing” have a honorable if perverse history[4].

We can expect equivalent developments to occur in the field of communication, as the current struggle over governance of the internet shows. With a twist: political and economic interests work at cross-purposes here. The political aim of “freedom of communication” tends to conflict with the economic aim of the creator to retain control over his message, so as to extract a rent[5].

Contrary to “throwing”, which is still mired in materiality, communication has reached “virtual” character: material support no longer slows down its diffusion. A metaphor would be the chain-reaction of radioactive material and its concomitant release of energy: Unless nuclear moderators are inserted, the release can become explosive. The political energy, but also the economic rents that can be extracted by freeing communication from materiality are enormous (and potentially disruptive of the social fabric). Virtual communication may turn it into “epidemic”.

Such “epidemics” may be socially dangerous, because they substitute the judgment of the few for that of the many[6], and replace deliberative by imitative or emulative (and mostly impulsive) processes. Manias and panics ensue – we may call them “bubbles”. Recent examples are the Cultural Revolution or Kampuchea under Pol Pot. Writing in a different (and hopeful) vein, Richard SENNETT[7] argued: “I think it is possible from an enquiry into how people now feel authority, fraternity, solitude, and ritual to derive ideas of a more political and visionary sort” (p. 10).

Instant communication risks foreshortening the time it takes to work through the implications of the communicated content. Our brains think both “fast and slow”[8], and instant communication unduly favors the “fast” and unconscious and reflexive side of our brain. The core issue then is moderation of the process – not the content. Moderating the process – enriching it through deliberation and dialogic discourse as well as verification of the effects at local level – is likely to nudge the outcome toward “the mainstream” and away from extremes. Moderation in this sense need not be equated with censorship – though authority often does so.

I know this is the tallest of orders. We feel omnipotent when we overcome both the constraints of time and space. We better learn though, unless we end up like the Apprentice Sorcerer.


[1]           This commentary is much indebted to Alfred W. CROSBY (2001): Throwing fire. Projectile technology through history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[2]           See Elizabeth Wayland BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2004): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[3]           Songlines, also called Dreaming tracks by Indigenous Australians within the animist indigenous belief system, are paths across the land (or, sometimes the sky) which mark the route followed by localized ‘creator-beings’ during the Dreaming. The paths of the song-lines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting.

A knowledgeable person is able to navigate across the land by repeating the words of the song, which describe the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena. In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks, or petrosomatoglyphs, on the land, such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints.

By singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, Indigenous people could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia’s interior. The continent of Australia contains an extensive system of song-lines, some of which are of a few kilometers, whilst others traverse hundreds of kilometers through lands of many different Indigenous peoples — peoples who may speak markedly different languages and have different cultural traditions. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songlines

[4]           As soon as humankind adopts rules, it adapts and tries to exploit them to partisan advantage: from limit rules become function. The strong here has a double advantage: it sets the rules to suit his strength, and it is best equipped to use the rules to its own advantage. The weak will either break the rules or circumvent them through innovative tactics – leading to the next round of rule-setting.

[5]           By definition a one-on-many situation is a monopolistic one. See: Gordon TULLOCK (1993): Rent seeking. Edward Edgar Publishing Co., Brookfield, Vt.

[6]           For alternative explanations of the underlying processes see: Malcolm GLADWELL (2000): The tipping point. How little things can make a big difference. Little Brown, New York; also James SUROWIECKI (2004): The wisdom of crowds. Why the many are smarted than few. Little Brown, New York.

[7]           Richard SENNETT (1980): Authority. faber & faber. London. I’m not sure whether he still holds this hopeful view…

[8]           Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York.