Is Humanity Morally Sustainable?: The Essential Nature of Communications


The Rosetta Stone

The vast information network that humans have constructed includes an innumerable amount of information sources. It is the the magnum opus of communications so far achieved by the species that designates itself homo sapiens, which, roughly translated means “all of the same intelligence (wisdom)”. The word “sapiens” originates from the Latin definition and assigned accordingly by biologists as all organisms have been given Latin nomenclature for the purposes of scientific designation. However, this rough definition scarcely provides adequate definition of the human race, even if one is to understand the etymology and purpose of its meaning. No single species can truly be characterized by two words, particularly not human beings. This is specifically why the invention of language was necessary to the evolution and advancement of humanity. The earliest recorded languages were established approximately 5K years ago originating from cuneiform text which largely consisted of symbols carved upon permanent or semi-permanent surfaces since paper had not been invented yet. This tool of written expression allowed the invention of storytelling to leap off of cave walls to a more portable medium. The invention of languages eventually led to forms of literature which allowed humans to record history. Thousands of years later, communication has continued to evolve up to where it exists in the myriad forms we have adapted it for interpretation. 

    In the 21st century, billions of humans rely on not written text on physical mediums but a form of digitized communication recorded on silicon and transmitted via microscopic fiber and airwaves to electronic devices. From carving stone tablets and scrawling on primitive parchment, we have now unlocked the potential of communications stored and transmitted using a seemingly invisible medium. This everyday convenience would be perceived as nothing less than a miracle by the same species who invented language’s first rough, carved iterations of symbology. However, 21st century homo sapiens go about their daily routines of reading these communications with little more consideration than the dozens of simple activities they perform in a day, only noticing when their access to communications are disrupted. The irony of the privilege of technology and universal access to this information is that it is reserved for only a certain percentage of all the humans on the planet; there is not a universally held standard enabling access for all. In the same city, perhaps the same neighborhood, where a person sits reading the news online while sipping coffee, another resident may not be able to afford the technology that allows the same luxury. Half a world away, villagers in a rural community also do not have access to the hardware or information system that brings instant communication to a device that can be held in their hands. Although humanity does not usually consider this dichotomy, it represents a difference in our species that is as vast as 5,000 years. Some of us have the full benefit of 21st century technology and ‘sapiens’ while others are left with less, therefore relegating some to a period of human development that is in the past. Call it “information poverty or inequality”.

    For this exposition, this difference is precisely what I would like to focus upon. Because limitation to knowledge or information is a form of inequality. Certainly many thousands of years ago this was inevitable. As languages began to be developed those leading the charge for this new development were not only responsible for the formation and interpretation of a form of communication, they also knew of its limitations as something that no one else was accustomed to. Languages are an essential bond of humanity and imperative to our success as a species. It expanded the ability of communities to exist beyond merely survival by enabling a symbolic way of recording activities and passing learned traits and behaviors to others. As acceptance of languages grew so did understanding and appreciation of its uses. Not only was communication of another community’s activities beneficial in the sharing of experience, it also demonstrated the similarities that existed in people living far distances apart. It revealed the similarities of human nature and improved on the ability for separate cultures to tend to their basic needs and share not only those resources but the means by which they can be consistently attained. Now, communications through language not only could record how fire and tools are made, but can be passed to another group to replicate and improve on. Language was among the first true technologies of homo sapiens. 

    If it seems odd to think of language as a technology, I suppose it should not be a surprise. Language is such a commonplace standard that most people almost consider it as an innate skill, one that we are born with. Of course we are not born with language, we are taught it from the moment we enter the world as infants. If we are brought into a culture and society that has ample or even adequate resources we eventually become proficient in at least one language and it allows us to succeed as we develop. However inconceivable, there are members of all walks of human society who do not have access to the skills that allow them to meet their potential. In nations that are affluent as well as developing, individuals still slip through the cracks and do not have access to formalized education. One standard can be sure, if you cannot read or write it will place you at a disadvantage in most if not all situations. Communication is not only a key to human survival but a skill that determines the likelihood of success in a modern world. This also applies to those who live in isolated groups living far from the reaches of civilization. There are few groups of hunter-gatherer tribes left, scattered across the continents, but even those that do exist must communicate with one another to learn basic survival and gathering skills necessary to live day-to-day. Those who communicate well within these groups are often appointed as leaders. This follows the basic stratification of human society placing the more educated at the top as leaders and those who wield more influence. 

    Because of the basic nature of human society-building this places the acquisition of knowledge at the forefront. Those with access to more resources for learning and communications have a decided advantage in determining their success in life. Homo sapiens have evolved far from their tribes of hunter-gatherers foraging for survival in the wilds; the contemporary environment for most is the asphalt jungle and the majority of subsistence is now meaningful labor. The best resource to do better and attain meaningful and profitable work is through access to better resources for education. In every society, the more education an individual has increases their ability to earn money and seek gainful employment. Information, regardless of its source, is still essential to human survival. Limiting access to this resource is a means of enforcing a sort of intellectual poverty on a group of people. During times of war one of the first strategies undertaken by the oppressor is to restrict access to information as a means of quelling resistance. During the World Wars (among other wars), occupied territories often saw the shuttering of schools and imprisonment of educators as the first measure to limit a population’s likelihood to fight back effectively. Stop the flow of information/organization and it will cripple any defenses. One of the primary keys to winning the second world war was the decoding of the German Enigma transmissions throughout Europe and Asia. Another lay in the ability of the Allied Forces to send transmissions in code that were indecipherable to the Axis Enemies. Ironically, the answer lay in an ancient language that had almost been extinguished with the indigenous race who were proficient in its practices: the Navajo code talkers. Despite all the technology involved in the machinery of war, two critical deciding factors that tipped the balance lay in the essential nature of communications. 

    Obviously warfare is not the only example of where survival depends on communications, language and access to related resources for the well-being of humanity. An example of where access to better education made a huge difference for a particular group was the legal case Brown vs Board of Education and the U.S. Constitutional 14th Amendment that is cited for reinforcing the verdict. Essentially this case mandated that blacks be admitted to public schools despite the Jim Crow laws that had restricted certain schools to whites-only enrollment for decades. The resulting effect was that children from minority communities were granted the same access to education as that of their peer white classmates. This led to the upsurge of literacy across the United States, particularly in the south where many blacks suffered the effects of illiteracy in the form of unemployment and the inevitable poverty that accompanied it. Future generations who were able to gain literacy would experience a much better opportunity at success based simply on access to learning basic language and reading skills.

New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become. 

-Kurt Vonnegut

    Humanity is nothing if not a self-defined species of thinkers. At least that’s the portrayal of what we’d like any other species to see us as. Let’s be honest, we don’t actually have anything else to measure ourselves with. As far as we know in our short existence we are the only sentient intelligence in this moment. This of course is probably untrue, but the proof to disclose that we are not is at best elusive and unlikely to be revealed. 

    Homo sapiens will continue to struggle on this rock floating in space, acting as if they have all of time to mature while wasting much of it on self-centered pursuits designed to attain more wealth or power to lord over our peers. Knowledge is one of the subtle yet most violent deprivations that we have inflicted on humanity. It is far more easy to point to instances of barbaric violence, literal starvation and environmental genocide as the flaws of humanity. But if we have learned nothing from the progression of scrawling on cave walls to inventing papyrus and movable type to the infinity of electronic information we take for granted at this moment, it is that the need for information and enrichment it supplies is as significant as physical sustenance. 

    Knowledge and communications has allowed humans to survive thousands of years of catastrophe, suffering and potential extinction. It will continue to do so as long as it is free to all and more have the ability to exchange ideas and benefit from the experience of others. Like many other necessities, it is puzzling that all do not have access to the same resources in our truly wealthy day and age. Humans are at what might be the pinnacle of their evolution, it would be a gratifying sign if they behaved as if that were the case. 

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