It is no secret that we are in the midst of an information processing revolution based on electronic computers and optical communication systems. This revolution has transformed work, education, and thought, and has affected the life of every person on earth.
The Information Processing Revolutions
The effect of the digital revolution on humanity as a whole, however, pales when compared with the effect of the previous information processing revolution, the invention of movable type. The invention of the printing press was an information processing revolution of the first magnitude. Movable type allowed the information in each book, once accessible only to the few people who possessed the book’s hand-copied text, to be accessible to thousands or millions of people. The resulting widespread literacy and dissemination of information completely transformed society. Access to the written word empowered individuals not only in their intellectual lives, but also in their economic, legal, and religious lives as well.
Similarly, the effect of the printed word is small when compared with the effect of the written word. Writing – the discovery that spoken sounds could be put into correspondence with marks on clay, stone, or paper – was a huge information processing revolution. The existence of complicated, hierarchical societies with extended division of labor depends crucially on writing. Tax records figure heavily in the earliest cuneiform tablets.
Just as printing is based on writing, writing stems from one of the greatest information processing revolutions in the history of our planet, the development of the spoken word. Human language is a remarkable form of information processing, capable of expressing, well, anything that can be put into words. Human language includes within it the capacity to perform sophisticated analysis, such as mathematics and logic, as well as the personal calculations (“if she does this, I’ll do that”) that underlie the complexity of human society.
While other animals have utterance, it is not clear that any of them possess the same capacity for universal language that humans do. Ironically, the entities that possess the closest approximation to human language are our own creations, digital computers, whose computer languages possess a form of universality bequeathed to them by human language. It is the social organization stemming from human language (together with written language, the printed word, computers, etc.) that have made human beings so successful as a species, to the extent that the majority of the planet’s resources are now organized by humans for humans. If other species could speak, they would probably say, “Who ordered that?”
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