Before we start today, I’d like you all to find five instances of amazing technology within reach of you right now. I’ll wait.
I’ll bet none of you thought of paper and pencil. Paper and pencil (or pen and paper) is an example of what I call transparent technology. Someone way smarter than me coined the phrase. I can’t remember at the moment whom I stole it from. It refers to technology so ubiquitous that we aren’t even aware of it. Think about the humble paper and pencil. I can pick up a pencil and write on a piece of paper, “Mary, please pick up eggs, butter, & milk.” Mary comes home, sees the note, and goes to the store to buy eggs, butter, & milk. I have communicated complex desires across space and time without Mary and I ever having to be within earshot of each other. That is abso-frickin-lutely amazing. Yes your snazzy cell phone can do the same. So can your state-of-the-art computer with its email and instant messaging. But paper and pencil could do it first.
I can go to the library and read dead peoples’ thoughts. Okay, you say, but that isn’t two-way communication. I ask all of you who have ever worked in a group environment, been married, or had parents, siblings, or children, how much communication is two-way? Paper and pencil are certainly capable of two-way communication: letters, notes in class, dueling articles in journals, graffiti on a bathroom wall. (Okay, the last isn’t on paper, but it could be if paper in bathroom stalls wasn’t in such danger of being appropriated for other uses.)
My examples so far have involved the alphabet, another transparent technology. Symbolism seems innate to the human condition, the earliest evidence we have of modern human brains are paintings in Chauvet Cave from some 35,000 years ago. While these paintings are representational, they are not photo-realistic. They are symbolic. All cultures throughout history have had symbolic art forms. Children given a box of crayons (more transparent technology) draw a symbol of their house and symbols of their parents. The stick figure symbol for a human seems ubiquitous through time and space. The two dots and a line symbol for a human face seems to actually be how we perceive faces. Alphabets, however, are symbolism on steroids—an arbitrary and abstract set of symbols that allow us to express with perfect clarity anything we can say. Try drawing, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It would take you awhile and be subject to misinterpretation. Even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” would give you trouble to draw out in pictures. Forget “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Astounding as alphabets are, paper and pencil do not require them to be amazing. Give me paper and pencil but no alphabet: I can still sketch a map, design a contraption, draw dirty pictures. (I wouldn’t be the first. Look at some of those 35,000 year old cave paintings.) I don’t even need paper, or a pencil. Give me a stick and some soft ground, or a burnt stick and a hard surface, and I can plan, daydream, and communicate. If I draw three stick figures with their heads falling off, anyone coming along at any time later that the image is still legible (which could be thousands of years) would understand the message is something about danger.
Paper and pencil—a transparent technology.
I’ll give you a moment to be impressed.