While reading the chapter on “Deep time of Media infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern, I started thinking of other texts I’ve read about how civilisation started. The traditional western way of telling history is that “civilised manners” such as advanced hierarchies and communities built of hundreds of people, were born out of agriculture and settlements. Abandoning the original way of life, Homo sapiens in several places in the world suddenly went from hundreds of thousands of years of being nomads, to settling down and starting agriculture.
However, newer research shows that people who led nomadic or half-nomadic lifestyles, could have very complex group dynamics and belief systems. Instead it might have been the other way around – humans slowly developed more and more complex societies and ways of manipulating or taking control over large groups of people, and this in turn led to the ability of developing agriculture, which in its turn led to permanent settlements.
When I was reading Harari’s book “Sapiens”, it really struck me again that the notion that humanity became complex creatures once we settled down and stopped being nomads, is completely false. The only thing that we can know for sure is that these cities and infrastructures that we have today, would not have been possible without settling down.
On the other hand – what infrastructures did and does nomadic people have, that we do not? And even more striking – has the way that we intuitively develop infrastructure over the millennia, even after the vast majority of the world’s population aren’t nomads anymore – been influenced by the way we inherently are nomads as a species?
Harari brings up something else that he sees as crucial for peaceful coexistence in large groups: Gossip. He claims that all apes are intensely interested in social information and that Homo sapiens’ way of speaking developed from gossip. Since we weren’t large and effective predators, cooperation was the key to survival even early on. It’s much more important to know who’s sleeping with who, who hates who, who is honest and who is a trickster, than in what direction the lions are.
This mean of communication – spread from person to person throughout large groups of people – must have influenced the way media infrastructure developed right from the start. Even though the word “gossip” has a bad connotation in today’s society, it’s still taking up a vast amount of space, energy and time in our lives. Gossip is often something that women are considered doing, perhaps because women traditionally have taken care of the home sphere and the relationships of the family. But if this is the force that actually holds us together as a species – why do we then despise it so much?
A large portion of today’s media is taken up by pure gossip, whether there is truth behind it or not. Most of the stories are impossible for us to fact check ourselves. News articles, social media posts and blog posts tell us the latest weird thing Trump did, what the Kardashians are up to and that Jay-z has cheated on Beyoncé again. Most of us don’t know these people personally and have no direct link to them. We have to trust the source or find other sources. This is the strength and the weakness of human societies today. Shannon Mattern again:
Overlooking the way gossip and other ways of communicating has shaped media infrastructure, is perhaps one of the reasons we’re in such a hot mess today. It’s called “social” media for a reason – its primary task is not to offer the truth, but for humans to be social, to gossip. If we took this inherent human trait into account – how would we want to change the infrastructures of media then? And how can we develop trustful ways of tracing the source of information?