There are basically three kinds of knowledge humans can share with one another: news, concepts, and skills. Most of our early advances in communication technology focused on sharing news over a distance – a good place to start, as it was helpful in avoiding death. We’ve come a long way since then, and while online technologies are still evolving – and while too many people still lack access to them – we’re using the internet to convey news, skills, and sophisticated concepts globally, instantaneously, and with increasing efficiency. Let’s take a look at a few key historical moments in the history of knowledge transfer:
1. The Smoke Signal
. . . originally used in Ancient China as a military technology, the smoke signal reached its peak of sophistication when Polybius, a Greek Historian, developed a smoke-signal system for communicating letters numerically. Today, the smoke signal survives in the ritual used by the Roman College of Cardinals in selecting a new Pope.
2. The Carrier Pigeon
. . . has a long and storied history, dating back at least to Ancient Rome. Genghis Khan used pigeon relay posts to convey news across the length and breadth of his vast empire. The French and the Germans used them to mutual disadvantage in World War I. And they’re still the best technology available for spotting shipwrecks from helicopters.
3. The Telegraph
. . . according to James Gleick, author of The Information and a recent Big Think guest, the telegraph revolutionized global communication in myriad ways. For starters, it completely revolutionized our concept of time, enabling us to coordinate and synchronize our activities worldwide:
One of the ways the telegraph changed us as humans was it gave us a new sense of what time it is. It gave us an understanding of simultaneity. It gave us the ability to synchronize clocks from one place to another. It made it possible for the world to have standard time and time zones and then Daylight Savings Time and then after that jetlag. All of that is due to the telegraph.
4. Gutenberg’s Printing Press
. . . fueled the Renaissance – the triumph of humanistic thinking and the widespread pursuit of knowledge by drastically lowering the cost and increasing the availability of books, which had formerly had to be hand-copied or block-printed one at a time.
5. The Internet
. . . makes possible instantaneous global communication and knowledge transfer in various forms including socially networked video, sophisticated textual databases, and online learning platforms. Our challenge now is to harness the wealth of information it allows us to share and deliver it to ourselves in more useful and efficient ways.