The first topic we address in Society and the Information Age are the cultural and societal shifts that occurred with the coming of the book and the extinction of oral tradition. Although we are now several technological generations beyond the book as a technology, parallels remain between society containing only verbal content and our now variegated content-saturated world. One looming negative aspect of this technological progress is a dissociation from process and a reduced respect for the energy required for creation. Instead we have an increased respect simply for creation itself. Luckily, a strong parallel exists between oral tradition and the internet age that can help society restore that interest in process and faith in information. That parallel is the perceived  importance of authenticity, trust and authority that was paramount in times of oral tradition and is now experiencing a renaissance in business and culture.

Oral tradition placed value in the process of knowledge retention and carried with it demands for trust and authenticity in society’s information and its delivery. Griots and bards and intellectuals were tasked with record and knowledge transfer, an arduous task requiring training and memorization. Some early texts existed not to be storehouses for our information but to serve as mnemonic devices to aid individuals in the memorization of the information for eventual dissemination to communities and discussion among equals.

The emergence of the mass produced book increased the ease in which information traveled but reduced the importance on the trust, authority and authenticity of the information. Trust and authenticity are not core characteristics of printed word as a technology, unlike oral tradition. The book additionally signaled a rupture in the respect for the process by which the information was obtained and stored. The mere presence of the inanimate form of information overtook the need for a live being to deliver it. This dissociated people from the process of creation and shifted the focus from one of cultural heritage preservation to that of enlightenment through increased information collection.

The further dissociation from the process and reduction in weight placed in trust and authenticity of source has continued with successive technologies such as television, radio and now the internet. “If it’s on TV it must be true” never applied in oral tradition as the people delivering the information carried with it authority and responsibility to deliver histories stories and parables to keep society cohesive and strong.

The recent wide spread emergence of value placed in trust and authenticity is one that we should all embrace. It is a way of filtering the gross amounts of information freely available at our grasp but more than that it is a return to some of the positive traditions that formed the basis of oral tradition, mainly virtue, truth and the need for authenticity in our information and our interactions. Increasing the value of authenticity in our society could eventually result in a return to the importance placed on process. If we begin to look at things like credentials and methodology of research when determining what, as a science writer, should be covered, we can begin to set metrics for value that are based not on sensationalism but on true fact and necessary information dissemination. Approaches in similar industries which consider process and synthesis of past knowledge as metrics of quality are what create real thought leaders, those that can tell us what we know, how we know it and where to go from here.


  1. See I don’t have to audit the course. SWEET! I’m going to read this again tonight in my bathrobe and half drunk on rum :-)

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

  2. matthew

    And that’s the joy of the internet.

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

  3. Doddz

    Actually the quote is Print Killed Architecture. In the second chapter of the Hunchback of Notre dame, Victor Hugo says famously “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.” Across time and culture the greatest symbols of human culture and achievement have been inscribed into architecture. Pyramids, Temples, and the Great Gothic cathedrals were more vessels of symbolic communication to the masses than sheltered spaces. The arrival for the press and the availability of easy symbolic literacy Hugo claims, removes what was Architecture’s power to communicate the sublime for good. Now the Cathedrals are truly only buildings. But moving on.

    I would be wary of what kind of truth and authenticity is innate to spoken words…There is an innate originality to spoken language, that then becomes translated into text, and re-translated by the reader but as for the authenticity of the content, that’s a totally different matter. Hitler, Bush and plenty other good orators deliver a very suspicious type of truth, no? And as for credentials? What does a PHd in Bioengineering have to back up his opinions on literature, culture and art? :)

    Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

  4. Doddz

    By the way, I love these posts. They get me thinking about my favorite topics. Be prepared for more reparte!

    Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

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