January 28, 2018

The History of the World in a Text

Yesterday my daughter sent me a text with a video of her new cat. As cat videos go, it’s not very good; the cat hardly does anything. But if you look closely, you will see that a simple text message like that is an amazing thing.

Such a thing would not be possible if people hadn’t invented the electric circuit, the battery, the telephone, the camera, motion pictures, sound recording, television, computers, and the Internet. The time stamp alone, “Wed. Dec. 20, 7:20 PM,” would not be possible if the Europeans hadn’t invented the pendulum clock, if the Romans hadn’t invented their cale ndar, if the Hindus hadn’t invented their number system, or if the Phoenicians hadn’t invented the alphabet. If people hadn’t developed language tens of thousands of years ago, we certainly wouldn’t be sharing cat videos today.

Our modern information culture didn’t just spring up in the last few decades. It is the product of centuries and millennia of innovation and development, reaching back to Edison and Gutenberg, to the ancient people who developed writing, math, and music, to the early humans who spoke the first sentences and formed the first gestures.

This blog tells the stories of those innovations. The stories tell of how our everyday forms of information came to be invented and designed. They explain lots of things we take for granted. For instance, why is north up? Who put the alphabet in alphabetical order? Why is the twelfth month of the year named after the word for ten? They shed light on how people think and create. They tell of how human consciousness has shaped the forms of culture, and how those forms, in turn, continue to shape our consciousness.

We are the heirs to a long tradition of design thinking. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Think about that the next time you look at your phone. In that little screen you can see the history of the world.

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