Blog, Catholic Church, Greek History, History, Writing

The Medium of Writing and Dunbar’s Number

Writing provides a way to transmit messages accurately into the future, but it also has the side-effect of increasing social cohesion by homogenizing and stabilizing a ruling class, as well as by distinguishing one society from another. The medium of writing, according to the late Marshall McLuhan, has a greater effect simply by just being used, than does any, or perhaps all, of the actual content-messages sent via this medium. In effect, the medium, by its effects on society due just to its existence, enables different types of social organization. 

In a way, media can resemble Russian matryoshka, or nesting dolls, one inside the other. Think of a delayed television broadcast of a Bible reading: the spoken words (message) are “inside” a written text “inside” a video recording “inside” a digitized memory chip “inside” a television transmitter “inside” a cable “inside” an active television screen where, finally, you can get the inspirational message. The different media do not change, but the message delivered to an audience can lead to some or all of the recipients changing their behaviours, 

Two types of writing are in common usage: alphabets and logograms, the latter used primarily by China, while the rest of the world uses some kind of alphabetic notation. It seems to take about the same length of schooling to learn the basics of writing in either system, so there is little difference between them in terms of difficulty of absorption.

The oldest-known alphabetic script is pre- or proto-Canaanite, named after the land of Canaan, on the western Mediterranean shore, and derived from one that can be traced back to the Sinai Peninsula. Alphabetic notation ties specific sounds to individual letters (A =  aay, B = bee). The individual sounds might be words, but this is only accidental: only when the sounds are combined do they become more complex, forming words. The English alphabet contains only twenty-six letters, which, when combined, form at least a million words, of which somewhat fewer than 200,000 are in general use. 

A logogram is a symbol or character that represents a whole phrase or word. Logograms constitute the oldest form of writing, dating back to the ancient Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Chinese. In the case of Chinese writing, there are at least seven thousand individual characters and even more that are archaic or otherwise rarely used. These characters can be combined into 100,000 words. Alphabetic systems also have some logograms, such as where the symbol 4 is pronounced as “four,” but these are exceptions to the general rule.

The Greeks adopted their alphabet based on the basic Mediterranean usage, but with their own additions. There are indications that many of their letters were derived from their cultural ancestors, as well as from the Egyptians.

The Romans, who came into Greece a couple of centuries before Christ, had different internal uses for literacy. By and large, illiteracy was common: the aristocracy often depended on literate slaves, many of them Greeks, to write and read their messages. McLuhan made it clear (sort of) that the medium used to communicate a message is, in itself, at least as important as the content of any message, even more so.  

The Roman military depended upon written orders, as Roman military leaders instinctively recognized what is called today “Dunbar’s number,” which says that a human community without writing cannot exceed about 150 people (or soldiers), without breaking down, if only because bigger crowds cannot hear what is being said or shouted, or the soldiers forget what was said once the battle began. Since this implies there is a definite political and military size limit without writing, most preliterate military campaigns tended to be massed charges that soon dissipated as those involved got tired or fearful. A part of the Romans’ success depended on the discipline and coordinated tactics they used against less well-organized opponents, based, in turn, upon written orders.

The Roman Catholic Church in Europe adopted the literacy implications of Dunbar’s number, and literacy allowed it to maintain a disciplined hold over its widespread clergy. The existence of the Old and New Testaments provided a holy, unchanging message out of the “book.” The Arab conquerors, some six centuries after Christ, also found their ‘book’, the Koran, to provide the same stability as the Old Testament did for the Jews and the New Testament for the Christians. All were, to the Muslims, “people of the book,” a term Arabs used to distinguish between those with holy writing and those with none. 

Finally, a note about US history in this context. After the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln came to that town and delivered an address that is justly famous. Fortunately, he had made and kept a draft of his short remarks, because the din from the large surrounding crowd had only started to settle down when he concluded his remarks. We only know its contents from his own notes and some notes taken by those close by.

“Dunbar’s number” was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s. In the context of this piece, it relates to how many people can hear and remember (more or less accurately) by a communication delivered by a speaker. There are many other ramifications of this idea as applied to other aspects of civilization.