Monday, July 07, 2008
Are Web Icons a Modern Form of
Illiterate Communication for the Dumbest
How do you communicate with
an illiterate population? That's a problem I hadn't thought of before,
but on a recent trip to Europe I was fascinated to learn how medieval
towns and merchants solved the problem of how to communicate with a
population that couldn't read. Their solution was to use elaborate
symbols that reminded me a lot of the iconography developed for
websites and other computer devices. I couldn't help putting this
together with the idea of Mark Bauerlein's new book The Dumbest
Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and
Jeopardizes Our Future
Complex Store Signs in Salzburg Austria
Another example of using pictures
to communicate with non-readers is the amazing Salzburg street market
pictured on the left. This is a very long street with markets running
seemingly forever on either side. Imagine yourself a worker who
couldn't read. How would you what stores were available just looking
down the street? You couldn't know so the elaborately descriptive store
signs evolved so people could tell what a store sold. Here's the sign
for a McDonalds:
German Maypole's Use Pictures to
Represent Town Services
Many German towns feature a maypole in the
town square. In addition to being big and beautiful, a maypole
communicates to an illiterate population what services can be found in
the town with a picture symbolizing the service. Take a look at the
in Munich. It's gorgeous. Look closely and you'll see
pictures of beer barrels which would tell you Munich has a beer
available. And oh boy is that true! If there's a bakery you'll see a
picture of a baker. If there's a wood cutter you'll see a picture of a
It's all picture based so you can just
look and immediately understand what you'll find in a
Scan a webpage, an OS GUI,
or a cell phone interface and I think you get a very similar feel to
the ancient maypole symbols and store signs. I can't help but wonder if
over time text will drop out as people stop readining and we develop
ever more intricate graphical symbol systems to communicate instead of
relying on text? Everyhing old is new
Is Oil China's New Black Plague?
The article Oil price shock means China is at risk of blowing up makes clear that if the effects of expensive oil have hit the US hard, they have hit China even harder because the China miracle is in large part built on cheap transportation based on cheap oil. When oil becomes expensive that advantage goes away which could have a devastating impact on China's economy.
Curiously this parallels another time when a dominant China was brought low by a black substance, the Black Plague. Many do not know the world has been flat once before.When the Mongols ruled much of the civilized world (which didn't include Europe of course) they instituted many practices we think of being modern: religious toleration, public schools, a mail network for fast communication through out the empire, a rule of law that applied to all in society (both high and low), a common currency, a common trading language, book keeping, an elaborate system of trade through the whole world that allowed trading specialized goods from one area to others that demand the goods, manufacture of goods in one region with the specific intent of selling for profit in other areas, and much more.
The Mongol empire was rich and vibrant in a time when Europe was mired in the comparative poverty of the middle ages. Europe was so poor the Mongols didn't even think it worth invading. The Mongols were all about plunder and the pickings were slim in Europe at the time.
Then the black plague happened and 50% of China's population was wiped out. Mongol rule was based on profits from trade which rested on fast communication and travel. When the plague hit these networks broke down as expertise was lost and the world started to close in on itself to stop the spread of the plague. A once incredibly open and profitable world went dark for many a year.
Few people realize the Christopher Columbus was attempting to reach India so that trade could reestablished with the Mongols. While Europe was not ruled by the Mongols it benefited greatly from trade. When that trade stopped because of the plague money stopped flowing into Europe as well and they wanted desperately for trade to flow once again. Columbus was a little lost. He thought he was in India which is why he called them Indians and that's the name we still use. This "discovery" of the new world opened up an entirely new economy, the role of the Mongols drifted from memory, dominance slowly moved to Europe as Atlantic powers opened a new land. Then the industrial revolution sealed the deal in favor of the west and the role of the Mongols was completely forgotten. But not just forgotten. The Mongols were vilified by Voltaire in his writings as a way to lampoon the Church and Nobility of his time as he could not safely attack them directly. So he used the Mongols as a symbolic device and ever since the Mongols have been reduced to caricature. Until recently we even spoke of "mongoloid" children as a pejorative when the Mongol empire was one of the largest, longest, most innovative, and most successful empires in human history.
When I saw that expensive oil might cut the Chinese Century short before it even had a chance to get started, I could help thinking back to the Mongols and how the world was once flat and how disaster may again reform it to be a bit bumpier.
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8/3/2008; 9:56:50 PM.