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The spoken word is crucial to understanding.

The spoken word is crucial to understanding.

Fig.1. Meeting face to face to talk about e-learning – sometimes a webinar wont’t do, though more often you have no choice. 

‘I don’t know what I mean until I have heard myself say it, Said Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift

Conversation plays a crucial element of socialised learning.

Courtesy of a Google Hangout we can record and share such interactions such as in this conversation on and around ‘personal knowledge management’. Here we can both see and hear why the spoken word is so important.

Trying to understand the historical nature of this, how and when the written word, or other symbols began to impinge on the spoken word requires investigating the earliest forms of the written word and trying to extrapolate the evidence of this important oral tradition, the impact it had on society and the transition that occurred, after all, it is this transition that fascinates us today as we embrace the Internet.

Humans have been around for between 100,000 and 200,000 years. (Encyclopedia Britannica).

There are pigments and cave painting have been found that are 350,000 years old. (Barham 2013), while here are cave paintings as old as 40,000 years (New Scientist).

Stone Age man’s first forays into art were taking place at the same time as the development of more efficient hunting equipment, including tools that combined both wooden handles and stone implements. (BBC, 2012). Art and technology therefore go hand in hand – implying that the new tools of the Internet will spawn flourishing new wave of creation, which I believe to be the case. This era will be as remarkable for the development of the Web into every aspect of our lives as it will be for a epoch identifying renaissance – a new way of seeing things.

We’ve been seeking ways to communicate beyond the transience of the spoken word for millennia.

McLuhan takes us to the spoken word memorised in song and poetry (Lord, 1960 p. 3) while a contemporary writer, Viktor Mayer-Schonbeger, (2009. p. 25) also talks about how rhyme and meter facilitated remembering. McLuhan draws on 1950s scholarship on Shakespeare and asks us to understand that Lear tells us of shifting political views in the Tudor era as a consequence of a burgeoning mechanical age and the growth of print publishing. (Cruttwell, 1955)  McLuhan suggests that the left-wing Machiavellianism in Lear who submits to ‘a darker purpose’ to subdivide of his kingdom is indicative of how society say itself developing at a time of change in Tudor times. Was Shakespeare clairvoyant? Did audiences hang on his words as other generations harken the thoughts of  H G Wells and Karl Popper, perhaps as we do with the likes Alan de Bouton and Malcolm Gladwell?

‘The Word as spoken or sung, together with a visual image of the speaker or singer, has meanwhile been regaining its hold through electrical engineering’.xii. Wrote Prof. Harry Levin to the preface of The Singer of Tales.

Was a revolution caused by the development of and use of the phonetic alphabet?

Or from the use of barter to the use of money?

Was the ‘technological revolution’ of which McLuhan speaks quoting Peter Drucker, the product of a change in society or did society change because of the ‘technological revolution’? (Drucker, 1961) Was it ever a revolution?

We need to be careful in our choice of words – a development in the way cave paintings are done may be called a ‘revolution’ but something that took thousands of years to come about is hardly that.

Similarly periods in modern history are rarely so revolutionary when we stand back and plot the diffusion of an innovation (Rogers, 2005) which Rogers defines as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. (Rogers, 2005. p. 12). To my thinking, ‘diffusion’ appears to be a better way to consider what has been occurring over the last few decades in relation to ‘technology enhanced communications’, the Internet and the World Wide Web. But to my ears ‘diffusion’ sounds like ‘transfusion’ or ‘infusion’ – something that melts into the fabric of our existence. If we think of society as a complex tapestry of interwoven systems then the Web is a phenomenon that has been absorbed into what already exists – this sounds like an evolving process rather than any revolution. In context of course, this is a ‘revolution’ that is only apparent as such by those who have lived through the change; just as baby boomers grew up with television and may not relate to the perspective that McLuhan gives it and those born in the last decade or so take mobile phones and the Internet as part of their reality with no sense of what came before.

Clay tablets, papyri and the printing press evolved. We are often surprised at just how long the transition took.

To use socio-political terms that evoke conflict and battle is a mistake. Neither the printing press, nor radio, nor television, nor the Internet have been ‘revolutions’ with events to spark them akin to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 or the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – they have been evolutionary.

Are we living in ‘two forms of contrasted forms of society and experience’ as Marshall McLuhan suggested occurred in the Elizabethan Age between the typographical and the mechanical ages? Then occurred between in the 1960s  between the industrial and electrical ages? ‘Rendering individualism obsolete’. (McLuhan 1962. p. 1)

Individualism requires definition. Did it come with the universal adult suffrage?

Was it bestowed on people, or is it a personality trait? Are we not all at some point alone and individual, as well as part of a family, community or wider culture and society? We are surely both a part and part of humanity at the same time?

Edward Hall (1959), tells us that ‘all man–made material things can be treated asextensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body. The Internet can therefore become and is already an extension of our minds. A diarist since 1975 I have blogged since 1999 and have put portions of the handwritten diary online too – tagging it so that it can be searched by theme and incident, often charting my progress through subjects as diverse as English Literature, British History, Geography, Anthropology and Remote Sensing from Space, Sports Coaching (swimming, water-polo and sailing). This aide memoire has a new level of sophistication when I can refer to and even read text books I had to use in my teens. It is an extension of my mind as the moments I write about are from my personal experience – there is already a record in my mind.

What is the Internet doing to society? What role has it played in the ‘Arab Spring’? McLuhan considered the work of Karl Popper on the detribalization of Greece in the ancient world). Was an oral tradition manifesting itself in the written word the cause of conflict between Athens and Sparta? McLuhan talks of ‘the Open Society’ in the era of television the way we do with the Internet. We talked about the ‘Global Village’ in the 1980s and 1990s so what do we have now? Karl Popper developed an idea that from closed societies  (1965) through speech, drum and ear we came to  our open societies functioning by way of abstract relations such as exchange or co–operation. – to the entire human family into a single global tribe.

The Global kitchen counter (where I work, on my feet, all day), or the global ‘desk’ if we are sharing from a workspace …

or even the ‘global pocket’ when I think of how an Open University Business School MBA student described doing an MBA using an iPad and a smartphone as a ‘university in my pocket’. You join a webinar or Google Hangout and find yourself in another person’s kitchen, study or even their bed. (Enjoying one such hangout with a group of postgraduate students of the Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education – MAODE – we agreed for one session to treat it as a pyjama party. Odd, but representative of the age we live in – fellow students were joining from the UK, Germany, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates). I have been part of such a group with people in New Zealand and California – with people half asleep because it is either very late at night, or very early in the morning.

McLuhan  (1965. p. 7) concludes that the ‘open society’ was affected by phonetic literacy …

and is now threatened with eradication by electric media. Writing fifty years ago is it not time we re-appraised McLuhan’s work and put it in context. We need to take his thesis of its pedestal. Whilst it drew attention at the time it is wrong to suggest that what he had to say in relation to the mass media (radio and TV) if even correct then, others insight in the era of the Internet.  This process of creating an open society has a far broader brief and with a far finer grain today – , the TV of the sitting room viewed by a family, is now a smart device in your pocket that goes with you to the lavatory, to bed, as you commute between work and in coffee and lunch breaks. It will soon be wearable, not only always on, but always attached as goggles, glasses, ear-piece, strap or badge.

If ‘technology extended senses’ McLuhan, 1965. p.8 then the technology we hold, pocket and wear today, are a prosthesis to our senses and to the manner in which the product of these senses is stored, labelled, interpreted, shared, re-lived, and reflected upon.

If Mercators maps and cartography altered 16th century mentality what do Google Maps and Street View do for ours?

Did  the world of sound gives way to the world of vision? (McLuhan, 1965 p.19). What could we learn from anthropologists who looked at non–literate natives with literate natives, the non–literate man with the Western man.

Synchronous conversation online is bringing us back to the power and value of the spoken word – even if it can be recorded, visualised with video and transcripted to form text. The power, nuance and understanding from an interchange is clear.


Barham, L (2013) From Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution

Carpenter, E and H M McLuhan (19xx) ‘Explorations in communications’. Acoustic Space

Cruttwell, P (1955) The Shakespearean Moment (New York; Columbia) New York. Random House.

Hall, E.T. (1959) The Silent Langauge

Lord, A.A. (1960) The Singer of the Tales (Cambridge. M.A. Harvard University Press)

Drucker, Peter F. “The technological revolution: notes on the relationship of technology, science, and culture.” Technology and Culture 2.4 (1961): 342-351.

Mayer-Schönberger, V (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Popper, K. (1945)  The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One. Routledge (1945, reprint 2006)

Rogers, E.E. (1962) The Diffusion of Innovations.


Twelve Books that Changed the World

Which are my ‘Twelve Books that changed the world?

Help me decide.

According to Melvyn Bragg the Twelve Books that Changed the World ( BBC TV Series) are those that follow – then I give you mine. And then you can offer yours !

Melvyn Bragg deliberately limited himself to British books

  1. ‘Principia Mathematica’ by Issac Newton (1687)
  2. ‘Married Love’ by Marie Stopes (1918)
  3. ‘Magna Carta’ by Members of the English Ruling Classes (1215)
  4. ‘Book of Rules of Association Football’ by a group of Former English Public School Men (Etonian’s I believe) (1863)
  5. ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin (1859)
  6. ‘On the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ by William Wilberforce in Parliament, immediately printed in several version (1789)
  7. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
  8. ‘Experimental Researches in Electricity’ by Michael Faraday (3 volumes, 1839, 1844, 1859)
  9. ‘Paten Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine’ by Richard Arkwright (1769)
  10. ‘The King James Bible’ by William Tyndale and 54 scholars appointed by the King (1611)
  11. ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith (1776)
  12. ‘The First Folio’ by William Shakespeare (1623)

I don’t see me reading any of these, though I made read Melvyn Braggs book available from Sunday Times books 0870 165 8585 for £17.99.

A week later the Observer has an article with the crash title ‘Writing to Bragg about’ with a ridiculously posed shot of the aging TV presenter, LWT Million wannabe novelist author man. (It costs 99p less from the Observer).

As a reader at the Bodleian Library (I renewed my reader’s ticket) I could walk in next week, find a seat and order each of these books, in turn, from the shelves. I dare say there’d be a cue as I might not be the only person indulging myself in this way – going to the original sources, always better than taking it second hand, and preferably done BEFORE reading Bragg’s book, rather than afterwards. ‘ ‘Eh lad, there’s an academic in ye struggling te get out.’

I don’t see anything from the 21st century which surprises me; although only a few years in, in matters of fact and science in particular, much has moved on.

Something on warfare, 21st century politics or Global Warming?

Or medicine, on genetics?

On electronics or Information Technology?

On Google?

On the bursting of the Web in 2001?

At least here we’re invited to make up our own list of a dozen books and to email in our choices with our reasons.

I’m likely to read ‘Twelve Books’ though I’m unlikely to read any of the books themselves. They read like a list for Oxford & Cambridge hopefuls, pack this lot in between Jan and the exams in June and you would have been able add a fourth A’ Level in the form an A Level in General Studies. I took a fourth A Level in Art. I got a B. I wasn’t going to push it by attempting a fifth A Level in General Studies.

My interest in any subjects beyond art, history, english, geography and sex were myopic in my teens.

Melvyn Bragg has made his selection the way a writer would – it is both personal and contained. What would a panel of worthies come up with? or a TV vote? A right joke. My choice These books, Melvyn Bragg adds, do not need to make a good read to be on his list. Who after all is going to ready Michael Faraday’s three volumes of ‘Experimental Researches in Electricity’ ? I think he is wrong here – the influence was outside the book, if the book could not be read or was not widely read.

The book was a mere expression of an idea that had a better life beyond its pages.

My twelve books that changed the world … that is, until it becomes the twelve or more books that have had an impact on me.  Not very academic. But this is a blog after all.

1. ‘Rights of Man’ by Thomas Paine, (Part I in 1791, Part II in 1792)

Written by a man who lived here  in Lewes, became a local councillor, complained a lot about the local landed gentry and then ran off to America where he joined in enthusiastically to have the ‘colony’ seek independence from Britain and a parliamentary democracy that had a monarch as the head of state. Still relevant today. I’m all for a Republic. The Monarchy needs to go.

2. ‘Utopia’ by Thomas Moore (c 1515)

A must read during my History A’ Levels, or the Oxbridge Exams. Interesting Sci-fi – the first ‘Brave New World.’ Insightful. We’re clever people us humans, when we thin, then get it down.

3. ‘The Prince’ by Nicolo Machiavelli (1513)

Another must read. Probably on some A’ level reading list, which is when I read it. Explains the word ‘Machiavellian.’ How many of those do we know? I’ve not much of any of the following, just read about them and a bit of each: Arthur C Clarke A prodigious writer of fact and fiction

4. The Manual for the Vickers MKII machine gun. (c1910)

This given to all members of the Machine Gun Corps. I have my grandfather’s copy. He was selected for what was ‘nicknamed’ the suicide squad in 1915, then saw action in Arras, on the Somme, at Passchendale and Ypres. He must have been considered good with the weapon, he said he never saw any of the thousands of Germans he must have killed – spraying bullets was his trade. It was ticket into the Royal Flying Corps where he would continue to fire a Vicker’s Machine Gun, this time through the propeller blades of a Bristol fighter. What a weapon, what a book – how they put their stamp on the 20th century and history and many millions lives. A piece of English History or on English History? Churchill?

5. Eden by Tim Smit (2001)

How to get something done in this country against the odds and especially against the obstructive councillors and characters in our councils whose response fed by activists in minority groups is generally ‘ no you can’t.’

6. French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David (1987)

Gorgeous, a great read, wonderful to cook. A piece of mid 20th century history too.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1999)

Something Historical by Neil Ferguson

Good non-fiction reads I’d recommend though would be: These are not only a must read. They are books you should keep if you enjoy, sprawl with notes and share with others. They may not have defined the world we now live in, but the help explain it. When an OXford undergraduate he wrote something called ‘The Labours of hercules Sprout’ which we shot as a film … on video. 90 mins. I should know, I was the cameraman.

7. The Hite Report by Shere Hite (1982)

Informative, red with a voracious appetite by men and women and super fun to put into practice! There’s nothing a studied harder or with more gusto, or shared around (or for whom I bought copies) than this gem, this bible for those who are new to sex (or just thinking about it a lot, which is what I did when I first got my hands on this one age 15 or 16).

8. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)

And Capricorn, and Plexus, Nexus and Sexus. A good male read, not a wank … not porn or erotica, just a man and his stiffy.

9. Henry and June : from a Journal of Love

+ the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-1932

The film Henry & June introduced me to this pair when I was living in Paris. I bought Tropic of Cancer, and Anais Nin’s erotica. Then I started to read the diaries. All of them. Then everything Henry Miller had written … and their correspondence, as well as biographies.

10. What’s Going on in there? How the brain and mind develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Elliot Ph.D (September 2000)

Because all parents want to know, and this is intelligent and fact-based, written by a neurosurgeon but not a science text. No parent should be tempted by the popular twaddle that publishers try to make them real. Babies are creatures, extraordinary vehicles of potential. They should be understood.

11. Mother Tongue. The English Language by Bill Bryson (1991)

Amazing. Insightful. Sell it to the world.

12. A short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2004)

Had I read this in my teens, had it been available in my teens, I may have read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and followed a different, more academic and cerebral career. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable Roget’s Thesaurus

The Human Brain by Robert Winston

Alistair Cooke by Biography A history book?

‘Read everything you can until you can hear the people speak.

My mother bought much of what I need on my modern history reading list pre-Oxford and sent it out. Nothing stirred me, otherwise I may have been more keen to stick with history Tocqueville, in French. Gibbon on the Rise & Fall of the Trigan Empire … or should that read Roman Empire?

Can’t think what else.

The geography reading list was equally turgid; I should have thought hard about either subject earlier in at Oxford and swapped out. An art book? A geography book? Pre-teens did I read at all if it wasn’t a school text book? I draw, I didn’t write. I looked at pictures, I didn’t read. I had a collection of from the TV series by Nigel Calder, such as ‘The Weather Machine’ and ‘The New Ice Age.’

There was the ABC of Space by Peter Fairly

How Things Work parts I & II

From my godparents, ‘How things works I’ for one birthday and ‘How things work II’ for the next.

The Chambers Dictionary of English

Something from my father which I had asked for, more to please him than for the amount I would use it, though I still have it and will at times still prefer this over Dictionary.com on the Internet.

How to Ski was a book from the Sunday Times

We took on our first ski trip, when I was 13. I broke my leg, so I hadn’t really anything about common sense. But what young teenager ever has common sense.

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen (2000)

Still practical, if dull. Writing for the web and its lay-out needs to follow some simple rules if it is to be readable and scannable.

Hidden France by Richard Binns (1982)

12. Detecting Lies & Deceit. The psychology of lying and the implications for professional practice. Aldert Vrij (2001)

There are too many deceitful liars in the world. Read this to get a handle on who they might be, how you might or might not get away with lying, whether it matters and whether it does and knowing the difference. We should all be honest liars.

And some others I’ve thought of

‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ by David Ogilvy (1999)

The men who created modern advertising, aiming for hearts, not just minds.

Or ‘How to become an Advertising Man’ by James Webb Young (1963)

Given to all graduate trainees of advertising agency JWT.

The Beatles Song Book by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Iconic Art, a band that changed the nature of modern popular music, a book that so many wannabe guitarist, lyricists, pianists and buskers must buy and browse through. But which one?

Go. Off the top of your head. Give me twelve.

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