The ABCs of our daily data deluge
Examining the basis of our current communication overload
We’re flooded daily with 174 newspapers of information
Like a runaway metronome, the pace of our daily life seems to quicken every day. The constant technological advances makes us feel like the Earth is spinning faster and faster. There’s too much data and not enough time in the day.
STOP for a moment and reflect on our world. It’s filled with a seemingly endless series of messages coming from your smartphone, computer and TV, many of which need a response.
Today, in just a few moments we see as much information (in both text and video) as people in medieval times digested during a lifetime. Each day we’re barraged with about 174 newspapers of data, five times more than we experienced in 1986.
We aren’t only consumers of information. Each day the average smartphone and computer user creates mountains of data that’s distribute via the Internet.
With our tweets, texts, emails and Facebook messages we each produce a half dozen 85-page newspapers of data daily, compared with just over two pages of information a quarter of a century ago – nearly a 200% increase, according to a 2011 University of Southern California study.
This tsunami of data doesn’t give us much time to think or focus on any one thing for very long. But take a moment and examine your electronic screen or printed page. Don’t focus on the message; study the letters and words before you. Take a moment… Ponder and wonder…
Whether you’re holding an iPad, eBook or a glossy magazine that object in your hands truly is a marvel. Think and consider the long chain of events that resulted in that item – all the inventions along the way – there was Gutenberg’s printing press, photography, radio, cell phones, etc.
Wait a minute! I think I found the culprit of the information overload – its our alphabet!
Communication begins with language and the foundation of written language is an alphabet. How would we be able to text, email, snail mail or otherwise communicate electronically or on paper if we didn’t have an alphabet?
Alphabet's important role
We’ve forgotten the important role the alphabet plays every time we look at a page or a screen.
Along with the invention of the wheel most historians and sociologists consider the creation of an alphabet as one the most important advancements of human society. Written language has been instrumental in the growth and evolution of our society. It has allowed us to keep records and easily exchange ideas, both with current and future generations. And an alphabet led to us keep a written history.
“Of all the achievements of the human mind, the birth of the alphabet is the most momentous,” said Frederic Goudy, American type designer. “Letters, like men, have now an ancestry, and the ancestry of words, as of men, is often a very noble possession, making them capable of great things.”
Tracing the birth of our alphabet isn’t as simple as A-B-C. It took centuries for it to develop and there were many tweaks and turns along the way.
The first written communication started some 40,000 years ago when people began drawing and painting on cave walls. Cave dwellers used the juice from fruits and berries, along with minerals and animal blood to make their paint. Using these pigments cave painters depicted their primitive life on the walls. Some scholars believe many of these drawings weren’t just art, but posters or signs that instructed others what animals were safe to eat.
The birth of the world’s alphabets occurred separately in different parts of the world in both China and the Middle East with the Sumerians and the Egyptians.
Click on image ▼ to enlarge
Latin alphabet's journey begins with pictograms
Commerce was the impetus for our first alphabet. As people traded they needed a way to record their transactions.
Our ancient ancestors developed a system of “Pictograms” – simple drawings of objects, such as: people, animals and mountains. And as traders sought out new markets for their goods they introduced their alphabet to these communities.
Humans soon found the pictogram alphabet was too limited.
A new system called “Ideagrams” was created which allowed people to communicate more complex and abstract thoughts (i.e. the symbol of an eye represented seeing and a skull meant death). This new writing process allowed humans to keep better records and communicate more in-depth ideas.
The Chinese use the oldest writing alphabet still in use today. China reveres its history, including its alphabetic characters. Many Chinese characters retain their pictogram roots. You can still recognize their initial pictogram image.
About 3000 BCE, the Egyptians developed “Hieroglyphics” – a method of writing that included both pictograms and symbols that represented sounds for spoken letters and syllables. Hieroglyphics was used for 3,500 years and underwent many changes. As it was perfected it came close to being an effective alphabet with characters representing distinct word sounds.
Alphabet and language facts
• The Hawaiian alphabet, a variation of the Latin alphabet, consists of 12 letters and a symbol, making it one of the shorter alphabets in the world.
• In Cambodia they speak Khmer. Its language has 72 letters. It has less consonants than vowels. Each of its 33 consonants is followed by one of two inherent vowels.
• “Rhythm” is the longest word in the English language without a vowel.
• The six official languages of the United Nations are English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.
• The word alphabet is derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: "Alpha" and "Beta."
The Latin alphabet, the main writing system in the Western world, traces it ancestry back to the Greek alphabet (born in the 8th century BCE) and beyond to the Phoenicians (which developed an alphabet around 1200 BCE).
The use of the Latin (or Roman) alphabet followed the expansion of the Roman Empire to Western Europe and later across the oceans to the Americas, Africa and Asia as part of European colonization.
The Latin alphabet is the most widely used in the world. Currently, “about 2.6 billion people (36%) use the Latin alphabet, about 1.3 billion people (18%) use the Chinese script, about 1.2 billion people (16%) use the Brahmic Script or Devanagari alphabet (India), about 1 billion people (14%) use the Arabic alphabet and about 0.3 billion people (4%) use the Cyrillic alphabet,” according to worldstandards.eu.
The Latin alphabet: The most predominate alphabet in the world
The Latin alphabet underwent several changes over the centuries, including the addition of lowercase letters, punctuation and a cursive alphabet.
Before we conclude our historic alphabetic journey, let's briefly exam a trio of specialized alphabets: sign language, braille and Morse code.
Sign Language: An alphabet of body movements– A system of hand and body language was developed that allows the deaf to communicate. It’s difficult to trace when sign language was invented. Its first mention is in the 5th century writings of Greek philosopher Socrates. The American Sign Language alphabet is comprised of 27 hand-made characters or "hand-shapes" that correspond to various letters made by using the palm, fingers and thumb along with the position of the wrist, either bent, rotated or straight.
Braille: An alphabet based on touch– Braille, named after its French inventor Louis Braille, uses a system of raised dots that a blind or visually impaired person touches. The number and arrangement of these dots designates various letters or punctuation. Louis Braille, who was blinded in a childhood accident, based his 1829 system on a complicated one used for a short period by Napoleon's army. Napoleon wanted a system that would allow soldiers to communicate silently at night, but it was too difficult to learn and the military soon rejected it.
Morse Code: An alphabet of electrical signals– This alphabet, invented by Samuel Morris and Alfred Vail, consist of a series of blasts of short (dot) and long (dash) electrical signals transmitted over the telegraph. Radio operators, who understand Morse code, are able to instantaneously send and receive messages. Those proficient in the code can communicate at 20 to 30 words per minute. Until the advent of the first telegraph message, in 1844, long distance communiques were delivered by messengers on fast horses.
Let’s leave the alphabet's ancestries in our rearview mirror and make a quick turn to our modern times and examine one final alphabet/language– text messages.
Texting on smartphones has changed the way we communicate
A few gripes about text etiquette
The invention of the cell phone in 1973 paved the path to a new means of communication – texting. In 1992, Neil Papworth, a British engineer, sent the world’s first text message from a computer to his boss’s cell phone. It was: “Merry Christmas.” That two word holiday greeting changed the way we communicate and led to texting exploding across our cultural landscape.
Today, 75% of the people in the world have cellphones and every day they send trillions of text messages, according to a 2012 World Bank study. Texting dominates the way young people communicate. Teens are the texting champs. Every eight to 15 waking minutes they send or receive a text message.
Teens (13-17) exchange over 100 text messages a day or 3,417 texts per month, according to a 2011 Nielsen study. Texting frequency decreases with age from young adults (18-24) at 1,914 monthly texts down to 64 texts a month by people over 65.
Text messages use their own alphabetic code. This constricted language relies heavily on abbreviations with few capitalizations and punctuation. A typical message might look like:
Sup. Imho sally is not the 1 4 u. She always talks byb ijs she could b trouble. Gtg cya 2moro
Translation: “sup” = what’s up, “imho” = in my humble opinion, “1” = one, “4” = for, “u” = you, “byb” = behind your back, “ijs” = I’m just saying, “b” = be, “gtg” = got to go, “cya” = see you, “2moro” = tomorrow.
With such cryptic messages like this ping ponging across the cosmos is it any wonder that educators and business people are wondering if today’s youth are literate?
• A majority (64%) of today’s teenagers say that the informal styles used in texts, tweets and emails (i.e. lack of capitalization and abbreviations) does “bleed into their school work,” according to a Pew Research Center study.
• About 25% of America's 8th and 12th graders write "at or above the proficient level,” reports a 2011 study by The Nation’s Report Card on Writing.
• “Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.” says the National Commission on Writing. The commission reports that corporations annually spend a little under $3 billion on remedial writing training. The estimate does not include spending by government agencies for writing remediation.
In the coming decade what will communications look like?
In my 60 odd years, I’ve seen the hard-wired phone and snail mail replaced with Internet connected wireless devices and instantaneous texting.
During the past seven years, the flip cell phone was replaced by iPhones (and Android smartphones), which are electronic Swiss Army knives packed with a GPS, a camera, etc. Is there any reason to think that in the next 10 or 20 years such major communication advances won’t continue to occur?
In the next decade, scientists predict our main source of communication will be similar to the smartphone, but it will probably morph into some sort of wearable, like Google Glass. "These smartglasses," CNN predicts, "will provide a constant stream of content and advertisement directly into the user's field of vision."
Will it be wired into our heads?
As decades pass, the communication device of the future will get closer and closer to being wired into our heads.
The use of touch screens on smart-phones was a big improvement from electronically pointing with a mouse. Forget about touching your screen in the future we’ll interact with our wireless device via Internet-based telepathy, according to one futurist's vision.
People will communicate with each other "by thought alone, over the network,” predicts Cisco’s Dave Evans in a 2011 Q & A piece in ITPro, a Website that reports tech news and analysis.
As Cisco’s Chief Futurist, Evans analyzes where technology is going and predicts future technological developments. While this idea is “very futuristic,” Evans notes, studies known as "Proof of Principles" have been conducted to test this concept.
“We're entering a phase of self-evolution,” says Evans, who also wears the title of Chief Technology Officer of Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group.
“We will start to augment ourselves more and more with technology. We will add technology to our brains to augment our own capabilities,” he said.
Evans says we can reach a higher plane of thought if we weren't limited by the physiology of our brains. “Our thinking is constrained by our own ability to think - our cranial capacity limits what we can think about philosophically or technically. If we can extend our cranial capacity, physical or virtually, it's theoretically possible that we can reach a new plateau of thinking” and communicating. –TDowling
© 2014 Thomas Dowling