Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Escaping from the Sea: Transforming the Written Word

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Elizabeth Ver Hoeve
The Story of Evolution and the
Evolution of Stories
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Escaping from the Sea: Transforming the Written Word

Imagine the classic American childhood game of “telephone.” One player invents a simple phrase and whispers it into the ear of the closest player – Sarah diligently walks her rambunctious dog every day after dinner. The second player listens, interprets, and translates the message for the next person, who in turn, translates the message until it has gone full circle and is finally repeated aloud. Although initially strong both grammatically and logically, the structure and meaning of the original message deteriorates as increasing numbers of people attempt to repeat it. In the end, the misconstrued phrase – Sarah, the rabid dog, walks dinner – resembles the original message but most would agree that something was lost in translation.
Historically, oral communication represented the primary medium for conveying immediate information as well as for sharing people’s thoughts and ideas. With a focus on survival, our ancient ancestors routinely transmitted messages to one another regarding the here and now, but they also shared their knowledge and customs for the benefit of future generations through elaborate oral histories and story telling. Since the beginning of time, oral stories provided effective means for communicating cultural values and traditions. However, as civilizations expanded and the amount of information necessary for survival increased, oral communication became insufficient for addressing societies’ increasingly complex problems. The invention of the written word provided a critical first step in the transformation of the idea. It preserved meaning and encouraged contemplation of abstract thought, which in turn stimulated intellectual development, as seen, for example, in the Age of Enlightenment and more recently, in the modern day evolution of the written word via the internet.
The intellectual evolution of the idea can be thought of as paralleling the biological process of evolution. Life first existed comfortably in bodies of water, but at some point in time certain aquatic organisms managed to crawl onto land, discover edible plants, and learn to survive. In the history of evolution, this migration onto land was truly transformational because it opened the door to so many new possibilities beginning with the evolution of terrestrial species. Similarly, in the beginning of time, man created a sea of ideas – mostly simple, practical, and short. But as civilization evolved, the complexity of ideas multiplied exponentially and those ideas needed somewhere to go. Just as the accessibility to plants on land allowed survival of the species, the invention of the written word served to bring an overwhelming number of ideas down on “paper,” allowed individuals to expand their minds and vocabulary, and ultimately led to the survival of a database of shared information across generations.
Around the start of the 18th century, Europe entered a period known as the Age of Enlightenment. Catapulting society out of the static lifestyles of the Middle Ages, this period marked the birth of a new emphasis on philosophy, reason, and science (Gerhard Rempel). Rejecting the ignorance, feudal hierarchy, and illiteracy of past generations, intellectual revolutionaries such as Voltaire and Rousseau emphasized progressive thought and philosophical ideas. While their inquiries alone made this period distinguishable, it was their decision to document their perspectives through essays and novels that led to transformational change. Without written documentation, these philosophers’ unique ideas could never have been read and discussed among the select niche of intellectuals of the time, and their revolutionary ideas could never have spread so widely, or survived for so many years.
Years later, however, examination of the history of the Women’s Rights Movement indicates that written documents alone were not enough to transmit ideas and impact substantive change. In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, following in the footsteps of other successful revolutionaries, made use of the written word in her Declaration of Sentiments and shared her revolutionary ideas about the similarities between women’s oppression and the American Revolution (National Women’s History Project). Her ideas quickly caught on with her small network of friends but the actual fight for women’s rights was a painstakingly long process. Indeed, because her audience included women who were secluded in separate homes across the country rather than the powerful intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment, the archaic process of writing a single document as a mechanism for the spread of ideas became outdated. In a world where women were confined to the kitchen, accessibility became a barrier preventing the spread of ideas.
Today, with the invention of the internet, the potential to broadcast a single idea, no matter how trivial, has never been easier. Transformation of the written word from books to the internet has allowed new opportunities and the spread of even more ideas. Instead of working to spread new ideas, billions of shared thoughts and ideas are transmitted almost automatically to individuals surfing the web. The transformational stepping-stone of the internet may have created the greatest impact yet on the evolution of ideas.
Returning to the game of telephone, one must agree that through the invention of the written word our ancestors put a temporary limit on the amount of information that was potentially lost through oral translation. However, in this new age of blogging and internet hysteria, our society is faced once again with the potential for meanings to be altered or lost in translation. In an age where individuals can manipulate access to and the content of other people’s ideas and established facts, reevaluation of how this new medium has evolved and how it may continue to effect our world may be necessary. As seen through the history of evolution, adjustments take time. With each reinvention of the “written word” our society moves to a new level of structure and function, and while each accomplishment is something to celebrate, we as the individuals responsible for these ideas must be prepared to adopt an educated yet skeptical point of view as we tip toe into the waters of each new development.

Work Cited

Gerhard Rempel. Age of The Enlightenment.

National Women’s History Project. Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement 1848- 1998.