12 – #WALL

Language allows us to share what we observe within the world: the passing of the seasons, the behaviors of animals, the stars in the skies above. Over thousands of years, a study of grasses led to an understanding of the relationship between seed and plant. Seeds could be sown, multiplying the number of plants. The Agricultural Revolution has its roots in language and the ability it confers upon us to transmit our experience and experiments.

Agriculture provides the caloric foundation populations far denser than the widely-disbursed hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the continents. People could be fed, but could they live together in vast groups? We have fixed physical limits for the number of individuals we can hold within our minds; for nearly two hundred thousand years, this kept the upper boundary of human groupings below the critical value of one hundred and fifty. Beyond that, you weren’t in one another’s heads – and this, for any primate, is an unacceptable state of affairs. We instinctively distrust strangers. Xenophobia may be shameful, but it is also perfectly natural, the visible echo of the limits of our ability to know others.

How could cities ever come to be? We find it nearly impossible and literally inconceivable to tolerate the presence of unknown others. There must have been an internal, psychological conflict, as we confronted our fear of the other. Yet we inexorably drew together, compelled by something so powerful it overwhelmed our innate reticence.

Before language we knew only what we carried within ourselves. Once we acquired the ability to talk, we knew everything worth telling to anyone within the tribe. Language gave us a weak group-mind, broadening of our knowing, producing an amplification of capabilities, propelling us into an understanding of the world wrought in stories and myths. The linguistic tribe triumphed, and established a precedent: coming together in a shared mindspace conferred obvious benefits.

These benefits acted as the lure to draw us out of our tribal selves and into the new social configuration of the city. The division of labour that is a defining characteristic of urbanization trades intimacy for capability, a bargain that leaves us vastly more powerful and consequently more isolated. The city has always been anonymous, precisely because it transcends our ability to know everyone within it. In reaction, we withdraw within ourselves and draw together within tight groupings of consanguinity. We put up a wall, both within ourselves, and around our families.

The city is defined by the wall. Both defensive technology and psychological boundary, the city wall separates the elect from the exiled, echoing of the close familiarity of the tribe, but at a greater scale. People gathered within the wall share an identity as residents of the polis, and the wall stands as the visible marker of their affiliation. Within those walls, overwhelmed individuals found sanctuary and meaning as they turned to something outside the province of their personal and intimate experience. The city-dweller defines himself in relation to the culture of the city.

This culture brings with it capacities impossible for and inconceivable to the tribe. Tribes can wage war, but cities raise armies – vast and highly organized – to raze other cities. The properties of the army portray, in miniature, the defining characteristics of the city, with its faceless anonymity, division of labor and amplification of individual capability.

With thousands of inhabitants, the city represented a wealth of human experience too great for any single person to apprehend. Each member of the tribe can know the important stories of their tribe, but there are a million stories in the city. Our capacious memories can not contain them. Where stories are lost, or forgotten, some of the meaning of – and justification for – the city disappears. In order to preserve itself, and maximize its own advantage, the city had to create its own form of language, one that could facilitate the sharing of minds beyond our individual capacity to encompass the stories told by others.

From this pressure to cohere, language concretized into writing. Although the earliest texts from Sumer are scribes’ accounts (here accuracy perfectly maps onto success) the first narrative work – the oldest written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh, both begins and ends with a meditation on the walls of the city of Uruk:

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not even the core of the structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens,
one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.

The story of an urbanized humanity is the story of walls, and a walled-in humanity, stewing in its own stories and experiences, people who need writing to make the experience of the city something commonly accessible. Writing becomes the speech of the city, the mechanism through which each generation passes along what it has learned. Writing is the vehicle of city culture, defining the psychological walls which separate residents from foreigners. Without writing, there can be no law. Tribes function on lines of custom and tradition, but cities have edicts, ukases, and commandments. The Decalogue are specifically indicated to have been written by the hand of God. The law may be ‘written on men’s hearts’, but it is always written.

One of the few surviving fragments attributed to the Presocratic philospher Heraclitus goes, “The people should fight for the Law as if for their city-wall.” The law of the city is the culture of the city, the internal representation of belonging. Just as the walls protect from invasion, the law protects against a cultural disintegration. Laws hold our innate xenophobia in check, bound by cultural prohibitions, compelling us to accept those we do not know, so long as they adhere to the same rules.

We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity too big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.

The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers, sharing what we know, that has propelled us into modernity.




11- #WORD

In the beginning is the word.

Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.

Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.

The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.

We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.

Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.

Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.

With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.

It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.

Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”

The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.

From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.


No one remembers learning to speak.  We can sympathize with a parent as they endure a toddler exploring the capacity of their vocal cords, hooting and howling in joyous cacophony, everywhere: during the middle of a religious service, in a movie theatre, on the subway.  Something about the voice feels so alluring the child finds it impossible to remain quiet.  We must speak: something between our voice and our ears demands stimulation.

Our earliest memories tie themselves to the words of others: something our mother said to us, our father showed us, or a sibling shared in play.  Words seem to be the necessary anchor to ground our memories.  Before we have grasped language, we hold onto nothing.  Those memories might be there, deep within us, but we have no way to find them, no hook that would allow us to trawl our preverbal history.  “Where there are no words, thereof we can not speak.”

We come into knowing as we come into language, judged both by adults and other children through our facility with words.  Using language as an informal intelligence assessment, we assume a well-spoken child to be more mature than one who stumbles through words and makes a mess of grammar.  An adult with a poor command of the language often finds themselves treated like an idiot – a perennial complaint of immigrants.  We have tied language to intelligence for so long the two feel almost inseparable, perfectly expressed in the dual meaning of the word ‘dumb’.

Humans have been ‘anatomically modern’ – that is, recognizably identical to ourselves – for almost two hundred thousand years.  Caves in South Africa bear the evidence of habitation by our earliest ancestors.  We have their bones and their tools, but no sense of who they were.  We can hypothesize what they felt and thought, but a gulf separates us from them — the gulf of language.

It isn’t until about eighty thousand years ago that we start to see the hallmarks of what we think of as human intelligence – patterns carved in clay, fragments of textiles.  These first elements of decoration – accenting the purely functional – speak to an internal depth which the earliest humans seem to have lacked.  That depth came with the emergence of language.

Few topics in science ignite more heated and less illuminating debate than the origin of human language.  For three hundred years, the question has tantalized and frustrated the best minds.  Hypotheses abound, but answers are thin on the ground.  We study the growls of chimpanzees, our nearest cousins, and analyze the clicks of dolphins – who seem to have a language of their own – in an attempt to understand how we navigated the passage from silence into speech.

Although we don’t know much about what happened, we have recently learned where: southwest Africa.  Quentin Atkinson, a biologist from the University of Auckland, analyzed the phonemes – individual sounds – which compose a broad sampling of human languages.  He found that the language family of southwest Africa – Xhosan, home to the !Kung people, with their famous clicking dialect – had the greatest number of phonemes, over 100.  Hawai’ian, on the other hand, has only 13.  

Southwest Africa is close to the birthplace of our species; Hawai’i, the most recently colonized land on Earth.  Atkinson saw that as our race migrated ‘out of Africa’, languages tended to lose phonemes, and each subsequent migration dropped some of these basic sounds.  (The number of phonemes a language possesses doesn’t affect the ability of that speakers of that to express rich thoughts; it simply means that the phonemes in a phoneme-poor language get more of a workout.)  Atkinson gave us a map, which points back in time, to the first people we would recognize as people, the first people with language, memory, and culture.

Even if we never know why, we know where we began to speak, and know that we carried that capability with us as we moved out across the planet.  Once language had arrived, it never left us.  It became too vital to be forgotten, so important that we consider language one of the defining characteristics of our species: to be human is to have command of language.   Our myths remind us of this: God blessed Adam with an ability to name the animals.

Yet there was a humanity before, a Homo sapiens before sapience.  We can reach back through prehistory, but our reach extends only as far as language.  Before language, our species was like a small child, remembering nothing.  After language we have continuous memory – indigenous Australians claim a cultural continuity going back some 60,000 years.  Language empowers us to express ourselves and know one another’s minds, but also imprisons us within an unbreakable cage that limits our ability to know anything about our pre-linguistic ancestors.  We are so different from them they are incomprehensible to us.  Language has so changed us that we understand nothing of those who do not share language.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Language was among the first human tools – along with stone axes and fire – and definitively the first tool that lived entirely within us, a bit of innovation as much cultural as technological.  In the moment language arrived on the scene, it became indispensable, and once indispensable, we adopted it as innate, favoring those with the greatest linguistic capability, and thereby subtly affecting the evolution of our species.  People who ‘talk pretty’ have broader prospects for success in the world.  They and their children will thrive.

Every claim made for the power of language – as an amplifier of human capability – can also be made for the sudden arrival of hyperconnectivity.  Connected people are more successful, and those most successful at mastering the techniques of connectivity have the greatest successes.  Connection is becoming indispensable, and we have already begun to think of it as an innate capability.  The billion seconds from 1995 – 2026 is witness to a transition from a world in which no one is connected, to a world where being connected and being human is seen as synonymous.

Just as we now see being verbal and being human as synonymous, hyperconnectivity is adding another layer of richness and depth to our experience.  Where we can observe the sudden explosion of depth in the human record, eighty thousand years ago, so our children’s children’s children’s children will look upon this billion seconds as a second explosion, another sudden quickening, before which the ‘dumb’ and disconnected generations of humanity will seem incomprehensible and inhuman.

We are at a threshold.  In fact, we are already more than half-way across it.  We can look in either direction; behind us we can see the familiar shape of a species as we’ve known ourselves for eighty millennia; before us we see something quite different, a form not wholly realized, yet quite real.  We still don’t have all of the language of hyperconnectivity.  The chaos of the present moment is very much like the hollering of seven billion toddlers learning to stretch their voices across an entire planet.  It’s growing quite loud, as everyone clamors to be heard.  There’s a lot of sound, but not much sense.

That sense will come over the next billion seconds.  When it does, the door to our recent past will be closed.  We will have been these disconnected people, but we will not understand them, any more than we can understand our earliest ancestors.  We will have lived two lives, before and after we all connected.