The Writing On the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage

Eight stars

At a time when one is almost ostracised for not being on at least one social media platform, Tom Standage has penned this most interesting of books. Many feel that social media is something that emerged over the last twenty years, gaining momentum with the ever-complex nature of Tweets, Likes, and even the odd Snap. However, if one looks through the annals of history, it is easy to find that social media in various forms has been around since humans sought to communicate in their basest forms. This is the premise of Standage’s book, which is sure to open the eyes of many readers and leave those who are not too addicted to their smartphones to take a look up from their screens. As Standage opens his tome, he explores why humans socialise and what it is about us that makes it essential. While his analysis of brain size and group activities is easy to comprehend, Standage extrapolates the argument and looks at the larger primate population. Social grooming is but one interesting example of how primates have long interacted with one another, though it is quite telling. It is a way to engage and help one another out. One might even say we share a particular ability by doing so.

From there, the book gets into its central arguments, looking as far back as the Romans. Standage explains that social media type interacting can be traced back effectively through the letter sharing done at the time, when writers who responded to missives would sometimes copy out the letter they sought to answer and share it amongst others. This was an early form of social interaction and sharing of sentiments, almost a ‘response to a post’ idea. This gradually continued in various forms, including in early Christianity, where this idea blossomed into creating a widespread religion by spreading ‘The Word’ along, through letters and, some of which were copied and left for others to read on their own. This early communication form helped pave the way to many other exciting means of communication and sharing of key ideas, while also embracing those who felt similarly.

One would be remiss not to look at the Gutenberg printing press as a major form of social communication. This allowed mass copying and distribution of ideas, rather than having to copy them out over and over. Gutenberg’s press went hand in hand with the rise of Martin Luther, who communicated his ideas against the Church effectively, beginning a (necessary?) conversation about the control and edicts that were being depicted at the time. Standage argues quite effectively that Luther was one of the early users of social media to drum up revolutionary fervour when it comes to ideas, though he was surely not the only one. Hand in hand with this is another topic, that being the censorship of ideas, which followed after people began expressing themselves in writing. England had a history in the 17th century of requiring a stamp of approval to publish anything, thereby having it checked before it could be released to the public. While this lack of press freedom may have created a stir, it does allow Standage to delve into the topic of how social interactions are not always factual, leaving some to wonder if this matters, in the larger scheme of things.

The evolution of the coffeehouse added much when it comes to social networking. Standage discusses at some length about how coffee and discussions seemed a natural pairing. In another of his books (and made reference to here), Standage argues that the arrival of coffee to Europe helped foster the academic spirit. Many key tenets of science and literature came out of coffeehouse encounters, including some of Newton’s most lasting scientific sentiments that still hold true today. People will gather over coffee to hash out ideas and come to some semblance of agreement (or even differ greatly), which helps promote the idea that coffee fosters social interactions and thereby is surely part of the larger social media progression.

I look to the news and see how things like #BlackLivesMatter are emerging with more intensity each and every day. Use of social media platforms help propel the movement forward , permitting people to share their sentiments and join the cause. Standage shows repeatedly that this push to revolution is not new, through pamphlets, tracts, and political books that played a role for centuries. To get people involved, things sometimes needed to be written down. To raise the ire of the masses, people needed to see things in front of them. While there were no cellular phones back in the 18th century, there were persuasive writers who could make their points and sway people to their side. Equally, there were those who denounced what was being done and wrote to critique the revolutionary movement. This banter, as well as being healthy, also fed the fires of debate and helped push the world towards new and exciting norms. Without them, Americans may still be sipping tea and searching for the best crumpets on the market. Seriously though, the back and forth of past writing helped shape the countries in which we live today and pushed for change when it was needed. While it may have been slower than many hoped, there was progress made… though some may wonder if we have regressed with the current criticisms being bandied about on current social media platforms!

The latter portion of the book handles the explosion of mass media and how this helped create a social collective or isolationist mentality. The birth of communication through broadly distributed newspapers, international correspondence by telegraph, and instant communication by radio (and eventually television) helped to develop new platforms for social interaction, or at least a connectivity that cannot be ignored. Standage takes things one step further with a thoroughly interesting chapter on the emergence of ‘online social media’ with the start of computer to computer conversations. This led to webpages, the internet, and soon the start of the international sandbox of communication. While the ‘info at a click’ movement has surely become the norm, Standage argues that it has helped the world see things in real time and pushed social movements into instant reactions, rather than needing to stir up the people with a fiery speech on the printed page.

While this is the fourth book of Tom Standage’s that I have read in just over a week (obsessed, perhaps?), I have taken away just as much with this piece as I did when he tackled issues in the other three. Building on some of the arguments made previously by scanning world history, Standage shows how humans can connect on many levels at different times in history. He effectively posits that human are social beings and that we are able to come together to share, even if we do not always agree. It is this ability to communicate that has helped create advancements and kept the history books interesting. Controversy has woven itself into the lives of all those who made a mark on the world, down to the lowliest 3am Tweet. While many people feel that social media is surely a new thing that they will never fully comprehend, Tom Standage steps in to remind us that it is only a new permutation of a long-understood concept. However and whenever you choose to put yourself out there to the world, you are making a difference. All this and so much more is found within the pages of this easy to digest tome, which offers as much information as you’d find in an academic textbook. Standage compresses things into a mere eleven chapters and makes great references to well-known historical events, as well as more modern happenings that shaped the world. A must-read for those who want to take a step back and learn a little something as they try to synthesise where things have come in the past decade or so. It’s not about making the world great again… it’s about rediscovering how great it has always been!

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for another amazing reading experience. I learn so much and find myself having fun as I do it, which is the best education of all!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage

Nine stars

After reading a few books by Tom Standage, I was eager to get my hands on this piece. While many are familiar with the explosion of the Internet over the past few decades, Standage argues that there was a similar type of communication system that was just as complicated and readily accessible to the masses. The idea of a telegraph system came about centuries ago, when a Frenchman sought to relay messages between two points using the clanging of pots in a specific coded manner. While this seemed to work, it fell apart when the wind was too strong and the privacy of the message was completely lost. As advancements grew, telegraphy became a hot topic among physicists and investors of all kinds. Samuel Morse is seen as the father of modern telegraphy, using wires to transmit messages through a coded system he created. The emergence of Morse Code and the continued experimentation of communication through the wire began a primitive system whereby communities could pass along short messages up or down the line. However, vastly separated areas were still not able to communicate with one another, which posed an issue in making it a truly global attraction. Into the middle of Victorian Era, the idea of sending messages across the British Empire became all the rage, or at least across the Atlantic Ocean. Laying wires across open bodies of water by ship soon remedied this, though there were still errors during the early stages of its organisation. With determination, messages began to make their way through, though the ease with which messages could be sent soon created a massive backlog.

Standage addresses some of the larger follies of the telegraph system in the second part of the book. By using Morse Code, operators would sometimes bungle a single word and thereby completely change the message being sent or delivered. This proved to be quite costly in one instance, as a man lost thousands in stock purchases because he misunderstood the message sent by a colleague. There were also the issues of coding or shorthand message sending, where fabricated words made it even more difficult to convey the needed message from one person to the other. Eventually, rules were put in place to standardise, or at least limit the superfluous verbiage being placed across the lines. A more humourous downfall included the lack of complete understanding that people had about telegraphs. Standage discusses two examples whereby people came to the telegraph office to send physical items, from a plate of sauerkraut to a handful of money. The concept of immediate communication between people still needed to be honed, but things were surely moving in the right direction.

Standage does speak of some of the downfalls that came with telegraph use, specifically the inundating of offices with information. These countless messages would create major delivery delays and tie up the wires for weeks, thereby making the new technology less effective. Others argued that telegraph transmission provided the consumer with too much readily accessible information, lessening the ‘business edge’ when it came to the capitalist relationship. The rise of Western Union can be directly tied to the advancements in telegraphy, creating a monopoly for a period. However, as new technology emerged, in the form of the telephone, Western Union’s telegraph system began to wane, leaving it to fill the void with money transfers, but that is best discussed in another biography.

After reading to stellar books about world history seen through the eyes of various objects, I was pleased to see telegraphy receive such a thorough examination. Standage does a masterful job at laying the historical groundwork and developing great arguments throughout. He uses an array of concrete examples to substantiate his hypotheses in each chapter and provides the reader with a great story about the development of the telegraph machine. His parallels in the latter portion of the book as it relates to the modern internet is quite useful, as though there was a quasi-resurrection of ideas and sentiments about this new form of communication. The writing is not overly academic, though there is definitely a detailed primer feel to the writing, requiring more than a passing interest in the topic. I found myself affixed to the narrative and wanted to know more, hanging on while Standage discussed many of the topics at hand, which mixed a serious and somewhat humorous side to the topic. While the telegraph was eventually replaced with the telephone, there is sure to be a new form of technology that awaits the general public. What that is has yet to be discovered, but I hope Tom Standage is still around to explore it and pens a catchy tome to discuss its emergence.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for another amazing reading experience. I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read of yours to date and will scour the library for more!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage

Nine stars

As an avid book reader, I always hunger for the next great story, be it based on real events or fantastical fiction. Tom Standage presents this book to explain how food has helped shape and influence major events in history, using a number of great examples while keeping the reader entertained. He begins by taking things as far back as possible, with a focus on man’s creation myths tied to corn or maize, which were essential parts of the early diet of those who roamed the earth. As Standage did in one of his other great books (A History of the World in 6 Glasses), he argues that the emergence of cereal grains helped to create a sedentary population and thereby developed a farming mentality. This permitted the emergence of cities and larger communities, which served to socialise people. Food has also helped create a sense of hierarchy in societies, which emerged early on in the hunter/gatherer collectives. Those in charge of finding food took on positions of power and control, which they exerted effectively. Leaders soon rose from the group, usually through natural character traits or physical stature. However, Standage argues that not all societies permitted this standout role, choosing modesty and a communal way of life. Food could also be seen as a currency, which exacerbated the view of power, as people traded and bartered with food, while taxes could also be placed on items that came from outside the local community.

This leads to Standage’s third area in which food helped shape world history, trade and travel. As exotic items came from the Far East, the Greeks and Romans marvelled at the different spices that came to be used in various forms. With the need to seek elsewhere, spice routes emerged and Europeans traveled far to seek them out. This permitted the discovery of new lands and peoples, which influenced how the world would progress. Standage explains how new ideas about food production also arose, as the Chinese, Indian, and Native American communities were studied, which influenced European ideas for how they might improve their own crops and cooking techniques. Much as the British Empire was solidified with the sale and exporting of tea, the Dutch took a position of power when it came to spices, using their colonial interests to procure and distribute various spices. With the arrival of some products from the New World, came new and interesting foods to the Old World, many of which were exotic and never dreamed up by Europeans. The emergence of pineapple in England not only denoted a posh new fruit for the locals to try, but also showed how Charles II held sway over his colonial lands. Standage explores the importance of these new foodstuffs and how they became central to the advancement of world history. Much time is spent discussing the great potato, which was seen as both something for the upper classes (as the French used them in glorious ways) and of the abject poor, who would live on them when nothing else could be grown. However, with all these new items came new issues, including rot and famine, which cost many people their lives and livelihood.

Standage continues his detailed analysis by showing how food could also be used as a weapon, killing more than any traditional military tool. Napoleon’s miscalculations when invading Russia in 1812 cost him greatly because French troops ran out of food and could not continue, forcing the ‘little general’ to retreat after trying to take Moscow for his own. Power also came in the form of communist collectives, where Stalin and Mao tried to use agricultural plans to support their respective countries, but things became dire and massive famines ensued. Standage explores this at length and leaves the reader in little doubt that suffering through lack of food proved to be more punishing than any musket or bullet. The last portion of the book looks to the green movement of food, its growth with the assistance of some outside forces. Nitrogen has been proven to be a much needed substance to spur along the growth and healthy development of crops. The controversies around fertilizer and modification outside of the ‘normal’ means is surely one that continued into the 21st century, but there is no easy answer. Many have tried to create bumper crops, but at what cost? Food may be the sustaining force that keeps humans alive, but does there come a time when too much tinkering makes our food worse for us, rather than better? This is highly thought provoking piece that kept me completely hooked until the very last page. I love learning so much and Tom Standage delivers in this literary ten course feast. Recommended to those who enjoy learning about the nonfood uses of food, as well as the reader with a passion for history of a different variety.

I mentioned in a previous review of a Tom Standage piece how much looking at history and world events through unorthodox means makes me appreciate it even more. The author does a masterful job throughout, filling this book with information open to multiple interpretations on a subject few would likely have expected to be its foundation. While only offering a brief outline of his arguments above, I have tried to show how Standage uses an array of concrete examples to substantiate his hypotheses in each chapter. These twelve strong chapters explore the history of a food based theme and then discuss social, political, and economic impacts on world history. The writing is not overly academic, but there is also more than a superficial analysis of the topics at hand, requiring more than a passing interest in the topic to really extract all that Standage has to offer. I was pleased to have been so enthralled and to be able to push through as my mind tries to understand the topics Standage puts on offer. I will need a while to truly comprehend all that I read and how food has made such a difference.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for an amazing reading experience. I hope others will find your books and discover the magic you weave into every page!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage

Eight stars

A well-written book is sure to quench the thirst of a curious reader, full of facts or action that keeps them coming back for more. But, how did people throughout history quench their literal thirst and how do the beverage choices made throughout history help define the advancements the world has seen since its inception? Tom Standage seeks to answer these and many other questions as he examines how six beverages (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) help to explain global advancements since humans first inhabited the earth. Standage takes readers as far back as possible to explore how beer could have influenced history so completely. A combination of water and cereal grains, beer was an accidental discovery that exemplifies the sedentary nature of humans. Crops took time to grow and required people to stay in one place for a period of time. The fermentation process also took a period to develop, which required people not to roam freely across the land. Beer could be made and consumed by anyone, which differed greatly from wine. More of a high-class beverage, wine was much more complex to make and costly to consume. As Standage explains, it was developed by the Romans and Athenians, who modified it and created lavish drinking parties around its consumption. Standage also argues that wine helped propel Christianity around the world, as the beverage is at the heart of the religion’s central symbolic theme of the Blood of Christ. Moving from simple fermentation to a more complex system called distillation, spirits came onto the scene and served to propel the world ahead even more. With use of scientific brewing and the addition of sugar to help the naturally impeded yeasts found in fruits or grains, spirits were a more complex and fiery beverage. The need for sugars helped to foster its cultivation, which was back-breaking work. What better way to have sugar harvested than through the use of slaves, which Standage explains helped bring spirits to the New World. Caribbean sugar cane was cultivated by African slaves, creating a tumultuous time in history to facilitate the creation of many new and interesting beverages. An equally popular drink in the form of coffee emerged, which created an enlightenment of sorts. Coffee became the drink of academics and the intellectual, as they would gather to discuss their ideas at coffee houses well in the night. The fostering of discussions, much as wine had done for the Romans and Athenians, came from coffee and, to this day, the correlation between the beverage and higher understanding is accepted. Tea, on the other hand, proved not only to be a drink that brought about medicinal properties, but helped Britain cement its power in the world. While the British Empire gained in importance, the British East India Company developed a worldwide supply of tea and marketed it as best as possible. This power remained strong for centuries, as the British remained at its centre. However, all good things must be replaced with something else, leaving Coca-Cola to move from a pharmaceutical remedy to the drink of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its production skyrocketed and was soon symbolic of America, which developed into freedom before long. American troops all over the world sought the beverage and wherever the US military found itself, freedom was said to be as well. Standage talks at length about the Soviet push-back against Coca-Cola, though the Iron Curtain was no match for the power of the mighty soda pop. In a book that leaves the reader’s head spinning as they reach for their beverage of choice, one can only wonder what the next big drink will be, and how its impact will shape the future. Standage posits his guess in the epilogue, but you’ll have to read to find out. Recommended to those who love history told through a unique lens, as well as the reader who loves to learn as they are entertained.

I quite enjoy looking at history and world events through unorthodox means, particularly when I had not thought to do so myself. Tom Standage does a masterful job at creating this perspective and fills this book with a great deal of information that can be interpreted in many ways. While I only skimmed the surface of his discussions in the paragraph above, the fact that six mere beverages can truly tell so much about how humans have evolved over time is amazing. Standage uses concrete examples to substantiate his arguments and keeps the discussion interesting at all turns. He has little concern about offending, as he speaks openly and frankly at every turn. His attention to detail is like few other books I have read in the past and the fact that topics flow so easily makes the book even more interesting. With twelve strong chapters (two on each beverage), Standage explores the history of the beverage and then discusses its social, political, and economic impact on the world. This permits the reader to better understand his arguments and almost demands taking a step back to see how the pieces all come together. I am pleasantly surprised about how ensconced I was with the arguments presented and can only hope that his other works on the subject of world history are just as captivating. Now then, I need a Guinness to synthesise some of what I read… or maybe a dark roast coffee…. no, a strong tea! Well, while I decide, go find this book and see what you think for yourself.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for an amazing read. I can only hope other adventurous readers take the time and enjoy this as much as I have.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: