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Book Review: by Lang Reid
 

Writing on the Wall

I am not a lover of FaceBook. I do not have a Twitter account. So when I spied Writing on the Wall on the Bookazine shelves which on its front cover proclaimed it to be “the intriguing history of social media, from Ancient Rome to the present day” and with that promise (or even premise) I was immediately intrigued.
The book Writing on the Wall (ISBN 978-1-4088-4208-9, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) begins with author Tom Standage’s quote from Cicero, “If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” Being an electronic infant, I can see what Cicero meant!
Author Standage spends some time with Cicero, and I have to admit that I did not know there was a daily “newspaper” in Caesar’s time called the “acta”, even though the news was inscribed on wax tablets which were then copied and distributed.
Lending even more weight to the title Writing on the Wall, the book takes you to Pompeii and the graffiti which was on the walls and preserved following the eruption of Vesuvius. The graffiti is much like that of today with entreaties of undying love inscribed by rejected suitors, to a call to vote for certain people in elections and more.
From ancient Rome, with its well developed “newspaper” distribution system, Standage moves through to Martin Luther and the fact that by the 1500’s mankind had begun to make printing presses to produce books and pamphlets which would distribute the news in a more permanent method than wax tablets.
From there, the book takes you to the court of Henry VIII where manuscripts were circulated amongst select groups, where each recipient in turn would add a stanza or two and pass it on. Author Standage is showing the reader just how similar this is to special interest groups in today’s Facebook.
Comparing even further with today’s social media, Standage takes the reader to the coffee houses in the 1600’s. Not Starbucks, but very similar with coffee and newspapers and pamphlets to read and discussion on same with other coffee drinkers. This development was followed by concerned burghers claiming people were wasting their time sharing trivia with friends, instead of doing useful work! Where have we heard that recently?
With the advent of a reasonably reliable postal service, it became even easier for those in a special interest loop to remain in contact with each other, with many really becoming chain letters with each following recipient adding a few paragraphs.
The book goes on to show the influence of the printed word in world history, including the American and French Revolutions. From there to Morse code, newspapers and radio for humans to keep in touch, followed by TV, the internet and email, blogging and uploading data.
The social media are here and clocks cannot be turned back. We have to learn to live with it. Including me.
For B. 495, Tom Standage demonstrates that there really is nothing new under the sun, and “social media” is alive and strong, just as it was 2000 years ago.


 
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Writing on the Wall