Writing on the Wall


Social media encompasses a conglomeration of new technologies and complex human behaviours that we are struggling to understanding, fully utilise and in some ways control. Some wonder if human civilisation will cope with all this cutting edge communication at times is seems to be tearing at the fabric of all we know. How will we able to sort fake from real news? Won’t the interconnection with so many people eventually drive us mad? How can humans adapt and cope?

Tom Standage in his engaging and well-researched book ‘Writing on the Wall’ has come to the phenomenon of modern social media from an historic standpoint. His thesis is to describe how have people through time, starting with the Romans, managed to cope with their new communication technologies – and actually some of them look pretty familiar. This is a book to read and savour as Standage carefully and comprehensively outlines a whole range of historic periods, their evolving social and communication technologies and how the ‘locals’ coped and adapted to them. Among the groups and times he unpicks:

  • The Romans – sharing news and political gossip was a key undertaking across the empire. At times news was posted on walls via daily updates from the emperor; these postings were copied and passed on throughout Rome and subsequently to the rest of the Empire. What started as political news was adopted by other groups with a message to share including the early Christians who preferred codices (books) to scrolls – a technology shift.
  • Martin Luther – arguing the need for Reformation coincided with the development of the printing press. This allowed his thinking (and indeed the arguments of his critics) to go viral as ideas were subject to duplication and rapid distribution.
  • Across the channel in the English Elizabethan courtiers would share notes and poems about each other in the form of personal profiles. A little later London Coffee Houses hosted discussion Many people were concerned that these Houses were more popular than work and many traders were felt to be spending their time unwisely on social matters rather than concentrating on trade and commerce.
  • Into the late 19th century, in the United States the emerging telegraph network allowed specialist operators to develop their own private network for gossip and information sharing all ‘hidden’ in self-derived code and shorthand.

It appears that there is little new for humanity to cope with. The key issue remaining is the pace of development and change. We are in a period of rapid and concurrent technological changes and that is unique in human experience. The only question that remains is whether we will be able to cope and thrive with all these changes at one go.