Cover art for lecture notes on the History of Human Communication

Lecture Notes: The History of Human Communication

What is Communication?

  1. Communication is the PROCESS of exchanging information, ideas, thoughts, or feelings between individuals or groups.
  2. It involves the transmission of messages through various mediums such as spoken or written language, gestures, symbols, or non-verbal cues.

What is Effective Communication?

Effective communication is a process where information is exchanged clearly and accurately, leading to a shared understanding between the sender and the receiver. It involves the successful transmission of a message, ensuring that the intended meaning is comprehended by the recipient.

Key elements of effective communication include clarity, active listening, feedback, empathy, and the ability to adapt the message to the audience.

Effective communication contributes to mutual understanding, conflict resolution, and the building of positive relationships in various personal, professional, and social contexts.Effective communication requires a sender who encodes a message, a channel through which the message is transmitted, and a receiver who decodes and interprets the message.

Why is Communication a Process?

Communication is considered a process because it involves a series of interconnected and interdependent steps or stages through which information is transmitted and received. The communication process typically consists of the following key elements:

Sender: The person or entity who initiates the communication by encoding a message. Encoding involves converting thoughts, ideas, or feelings into a form that can be conveyed to others.

Message: The information, idea, or emotion that the sender wants to communicate. This can be conveyed through various means, such as spoken or written words, gestures, symbols, or other forms of expression.

Channel: The medium or method used to transmit the message from the sender to the receiver. Channels can include face-to-face conversations, written documents, phone calls, emails, or even non-verbal cues.

Receiver: The individual or group for whom the message is intended. The receiver decodes the message, interpreting the information based on their understanding and experiences.

Feedback: The response or reaction provided

What is Human Communication?

Human communication refers to the process of exchanging information, ideas, thoughts, feelings, or messages between individuals or groups using language and other symbolic systems. It is a fundamental aspect of human interaction and is crucial in various aspects of life, including personal relationships, education, work, and social activities.

Key features of human communication include:

Verbal Communication: The use of spoken or written language to convey messages. Verbal communication includes words, sentences, and written texts.

Non-Verbal Communication: The transmission of messages without the use of words. Non-verbal communication includes body language, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and other forms of non-verbal cues that convey meaning.

Intentionality: Human communication is often intentional, meaning that individuals actively choose to convey specific messages for a particular purpose.

Symbolic Nature: Communication involves the use of symbols—such as words, images, and gestures—that represent meanings and concepts. These symbols are agreed upon within a particular cultural or social context.

Social Interaction: Communication is a social activity, and it occurs within a social context. It involves the exchange of messages between individuals or groups who share a common understanding of the symbols and rules of communication within their culture.

Feedback: The ability to receive and interpret responses to one’s messages. Feedback is crucial for adjusting and refining communication, ensuring that the intended message is understood.

Context: The context in which communication takes place, including the physical environment, social setting, and cultural background. Context influences the interpretation of messages.

Adaptability: Humans can adapt their communication style based on the social situation, the audience, and the purpose of the communication. This adaptability allows for effective interaction in diverse contexts.

Effective human communication is essential for building and maintaining relationships, resolving conflicts, sharing knowledge, and collaborating in various aspects of life. It involves not only the transmission of information but also the ability to listen actively, understand others, and respond appropriately to the messages received. Communication skills are considered crucial for success in personal and professional settings.

The Eras of Human Communication

The following excerpt is from from Logan, R.K. (2000). The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age. Toronto: Stoddart, pp. 14-60. It provides an overview of the Three Communication Eras: The Oral, Writing & Print, Electric & Electronic, according to Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis.

Marshall McLuhan  & Harold Innis divided human communication history into three eras –

  • the oral tradition
  • the age of literacy (writing symbols, the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the invention of the printing press).  Writing started with the use of clay tablets
  • the electric flow of information.

In each of these three significant periods of communication, the prevailing medium of communication had a profound impact on socio-economic and cultural aspects of life. The introduction of each new communication method, not only influenced society but also overshadowed the modes that came before it. Rather than rendering them obsolete, the preceding modes underwent substantial transformations in their nature and purpose. The oral tradition, or spoken language, endured beyond both literacy and electricity, albeit with a shift in its role and function.

However, there is a FOURTH ERA – The Era of the Internet

Although the distribution of information via the Internet shares similarities with that of electric information, a crucial distinction exists. Consumers of electric media passively receive information, whereas Internet users can actively engage and interact with the information they access.

Who is Marshall McLuhan?

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian communication theorist, is best remembered for his work on media theory and the concept of “the medium is the message.” He gained prominence in the 1960s with his ideas that the form of a medium (whether it’s print, television, or radio) has a significant impact on how information is perceived and the way it influences society.

One of McLuhan’s famous statements is “The medium is the message,” which suggests that the medium through which information is transmitted is more important than the content of the message itself. In other words, the characteristics and effects of a communication medium shape and influence human experiences and perceptions more than the actual content being conveyed.

McLuhan’s ideas had a profound influence on media studies, communication theory, and cultural studies. He also explored the concepts of “global village” and “the age of electronic media,” predicting the interconnected and global nature of communication in the digital age long before the internet became widely accessible. McLuhan’s work has left a lasting legacy in the fields of media and communication studies.

Who is Harold Innis?

Harold Innis is best remembered for his contributions to communication theory, particularly his development of the “staples thesis” and his exploration of the role of media in shaping societies. Here are some key aspects of his work:

Staples Thesis: Innis’s staples thesis is an economic theory that links the type of staple resources a society relies on for export to its social and cultural development. Different staples, such as fur, fish, or timber, lead to different economic structures and patterns of organization within a society. Innis argued that the control and exploitation of these staple resources influenced the balance of power, both within a society and on the global stage.

Time-Biased and Space-Biased Media: Innis made a distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. Time-biased media, like stone carvings or parchment, have a long-lasting impact but are limited in terms of reach. Space-biased media, such as newspapers or radio, can disseminate information quickly but have a shorter lifespan. Innis explored how the dominance of one type of medium over the other could shape the character and development of civilizations.

Media and Empire: Innis examined the role of media in the rise and fall of empires. He argued that the control over communication and information played a crucial role in the longevity of empires. The ability to maintain efficient communication systems was seen as a key factor in the endurance of imperial powers.

Innis’s interdisciplinary approach, combining economics, history, and communication theory, has had a lasting impact on the study of media, communication, and cultural history. His work laid the foundation for subsequent scholars, including Marshall McLuhan, who further developed and popularized some of Innis’s ideas in the field of media studies.

Who is Johannes Gutunberg?

Johannes Gutenberg is best remembered for inventing the mechanical movable-type printing press around 1440. This invention revolutionized the production of books and printed materials and had a profound impact on the dissemination of knowledge, the spread of information, and the democratization of access to literature. Here are the key aspects of Johannes Gutenberg’s contribution:

Movable-Type Printing Press: Gutenberg’s printing press allowed individual movable metal or wooden type pieces to be arranged and rearranged easily. This innovation made the mass production of books and other printed materials more efficient compared to traditional methods of manual copying by scribes.

Printing with Moveable Type: Before Gutenberg’s invention, books were copied by hand, which was a time-consuming and expensive process. The movable-type printing press enabled the rapid and cost-effective reproduction of texts, making books more widely available to a broader audience.

Mass Production of Books: With the printing press, books could be produced in larger quantities at a faster pace than ever before. This marked a significant shift in the way information was disseminated and contributed to the explosion of knowledge during the Renaissance and beyond.

Impact on Education and Literacy: The availability of printed books contributed to the spread of knowledge and played a crucial role in the development of education and literacy. Books became more affordable and accessible, leading to an increase in literacy rates across various social strata.

Catalyst for the Reformation and Scientific Revolution: The printing press played a key role in the dissemination of ideas during the Reformation, as religious texts and reformist writings could be distributed widely. Similarly, during the Scientific Revolution, scientific discoveries and theories were communicated more effectively through printed works.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press is considered one of the most important developments in the history of printing and publishing. It had a profound and lasting impact on communication, education, and the spread of ideas, shaping the course of human history and culture.

A Brief History of Writing

The history of writing is a long and complex journey that spans thousands of years and involves the development of various writing systems across different civilizations. Here’s a brief overview:

Prehistoric Communication: Before the invention of writing, early humans communicated through oral traditions, spoken language, and visual symbols. Cave paintings, carvings, and other forms of symbolic representation were used to convey information.

Proto-Writing: The earliest known forms of proto-writing appeared around 3300 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). These early systems, such as cuneiform in Sumer and proto-Elamite in Elam, involved symbols and pictograms on clay tablets. However, these systems were not yet fully developed writing systems as they lacked the representational versatility of true writing.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs: In ancient Egypt, around 3300 BCE, hieroglyphs emerged as a formal writing system. Hieroglyphs combined logographic and alphabetic elements and were initially used for monumental inscriptions and religious texts.

Sumerian Cuneiform: Cuneiform script, developed in Sumer around 3200 BCE, was one of the earliest fully developed writing systems. It used wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets and encompassed a range of logograms and syllabic characters.

Chinese Script: The Chinese writing system, with its logographic characters, has a history dating back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). Chinese characters represent words or morphemes, and the script has evolved over the centuries.

Indus Valley Script: The Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–1300 BCE) had a script that remains undeciphered. The symbols on artifacts from this civilization suggest a form of writing, but scholars have not been able to fully understand its meaning.

Alphabetic Writing: The concept of an alphabet, where individual symbols represent specific sounds, emerged in the Near East. The Phoenician alphabet (c. 1200 BCE) is considered one of the earliest alphabets and became the precursor to numerous later writing systems, including Greek, Latin, and many others.

Greek and Latin Scripts: The Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, adding vowels and making modifications. The Latin script, derived from the Greek, became the basis for many modern European scripts.

Development of Manuscripts: In ancient and medieval times, writing was often done on scrolls and later on codices (early books). Scribes played a crucial role in copying and preserving texts, particularly religious and literary works.

Printing Press: The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 revolutionized the production of written materials, making books more widely available and contributing to the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance.

Modern Writing and Digital Age: The development of typewriters, word processors, and, eventually, computers has transformed the way we write and share information. In the digital age, electronic communication, word processing, and the internet have further revolutionized the written word.

The history of writing is a rich tapestry that reflects the cultural, technological, and linguistic evolution of human societies over millennia. Different writing systems and scripts continue to play a crucial role in preserving and transmitting knowledge across generations.

Forms of Human Communication

Human communication takes place in various forms, encompassing verbal and nonverbal modes of expression. Here are some primary forms of human communication:

Verbal Communication:

Spoken Language: The most common form of verbal communication involves the use of spoken language to convey messages, ideas, and information.

Written Language: Written communication involves the use of symbols, characters, or alphabets to convey information through written words. This includes books, letters, emails, and other written documents.

Nonverbal Communication:

Body Language: Nonverbal cues conveyed through body movements, gestures, facial expressions, and posture play a significant role in communication.

Facial Expressions: The use of facial cues, such as smiles, frowns, or raised eyebrows, can convey emotions and intentions.

Gestures: Hand movements and other physical gestures can complement or substitute for verbal communication.

Eye Contact: The way individuals use eye contact can convey confidence, interest, or other emotional states.

Proxemics: The use of personal space and physical distance to convey cultural or individual preferences in communication.

Visual Communication:

Images and Graphics: Visual elements such as pictures, charts, graphs, and diagrams are used to convey information.

Videos and Films: Moving images and audio can be powerful tools for storytelling and conveying complex messages.

Digital Communication:

Email: Electronic mail is a widely used form of written communication over digital platforms.

Instant Messaging: Real-time, text-based communication through platforms like instant messaging apps.

Social Media: Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others enable users to share information, opinions, and multimedia content.

Interpersonal Communication:

Face-to-Face Communication: Direct interaction between individuals, allowing for real-time exchange of verbal and nonverbal cues.

Phone Conversations: Verbal communication over telephone networks.

Meetings and Discussions: Group communication in various settings, such as work meetings or social gatherings.

Mass Communication:

Broadcast Media: Communication to a large audience through television and radio broadcasts.

Print Media: Communication through newspapers, magazines, and other printed materials.

Online Media: Communication through websites, blogs, and other digital platforms that reach a broad audience.

Artistic Communication:

Visual Arts: Paintings, sculptures, and other visual arts can convey complex messages and emotions.

Performing Arts: Theater, dance, and music are forms of artistic expression that communicate stories and emotions.

These various forms of human communication are interconnected, and individuals often use a combination of these modes to express themselves and interact with others in different contexts.

Myths About Human Communication

  1. Communicating effectively comes naturally
  2. Talking frequently, raising our voices, and using multiple gestures mean we are communicating better
  3. The same style of communication can be deployed everywhere and in all instances
  4. Using big words is great for effective communication
  5. Speaking confidently is the secret key to effective communication

Attributes of Information

The attributes of information are the features that influence a message and how that message is received. According to Marshall Tillbrook Poe (2011),  there are 8 key information attributes:

  1. Accessibility – the cost of acquiring and using the medium
  2. Privacy – the possibility and cost of shielding the user’s identity and message
  3. Fidelity – the degree of exactness or clarity the medium offers
  4. Volume – the cost of using the medium to send messages relative to the size of the message
  5. Velocity – the cost of sending messages relative to speed
  6. Range – the cost of sending messages relative to distance
  7. Persistence – the cost of storing messages relative to time
  8. Search Ability – the cost of locating and retrieving messages in a particular medium


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