What did language give humanity? Some would argue our entire civilization and, indeed, our very consciousness are a direct result of the initial evolutionary development of language. They claim that once a tool as potent as language was developed for the facilitation of sharing ideas and thoughts and experiences and beliefs, human culture was born. My claim is that the internet is at least as powerful a development as language was and I will here hypothesize what potential leaps the race of humanity might undergo. Are we all facing an inevitable fate of getting “plugged in”?
First, let’s examine the contributions of language itself. One could readily imagine our language-less hominid ancestors as being not much more advanced than modern chimpanzees. We must have had a basic cultural system, as do chimps, and some basic tool-making techniques, but nothing fancy. This limitation exists because anything more complicated would not be transferable to other members of the species due to the lack of a complicated method of communication. To be sure, there must have been a rather basic system of communication readily employed to warn of danger, courtship calls, food source location, etc. Also, we must be careful of making the dangerous assumption that language was an instant invention. It was almost definitely, as with any other evolutionary development, a gradual adaptation in which tiny changes that were beneficial built upon one another. So, in this way, the initial crude and beastly communicative system will have had improvements, likely corresponding to the mutation which produced a more articulate voice box and tongue. These improvements will first have dealt with issues of survival importance as elaborations on the likely guttural cries of animal communication. They will have devised “pseudo-names” for items of critical importance, such as a particular predator like a lion or a fruit or berry. So, through the gradual contributions of evolutionary selection, proto-humans will have chaotically expanded their communication repertoire by naming objects critical for survival to aid in the process of calling or drawing attention in a particular manner. Next, actions will need names as well because once objects have been named, a gradual realization is made that there can be several different actions done on a certain object and special circumstances may arise where elaborating on a particular action might be advantageous. In this way, language’s first generation was a strictly survival mechanism and dealt only with issues of critical importance such as these early hominids required.
The next step in this evolutionary story requires us to deal with abstract notions such as beliefs, ideas, plans, knowledge. This really is a massive step and likely corresponded to the sudden mutation that resulted in the large frontal lobes so characteristic of the human brain. These frontal lobes are generally recognized as the centers in the brain where higher-level thinking takes place which incorporates learned patterns and expectations from memory into an integrated simulation of possible futures. This technical advance of brains allowed humans to plan, predict, and project ideas into the future and generate expectations about it. With this advanced new skill-set came an opportunity to radically expand linguistic capacity; an opportunity nature took ample advantage of in humanity. Thus, humans learned to incorporate auditory representations into their proto-language for not only simple common objects or actions but also abstract ideas like plans and expectations and thoughts and other accumulated knowledge. Now, these early agents could be attributed an intention and what’s more, they could communicate this intention to others. Previously, the intention was just acted upon without comprehension or even awareness of the intention. But now, these creatures had a means to declare, “I want to do such-and-such” or “what are you trying to do?”. These declarations and questions created a new dimension of human interaction and took one large step in bridging the impenetrable gap between creatures. Now they could understand the contents, even if only modestly, of their colleagues minds. This modest understanding absolutely dwarfs the silent isolation of pre-language times. Now humans could collaborate in extremely constructive ways. They could chart out complicated hunting plans and issue out intricate requests and opinions. So, society organized itself in a more intricate and detailed new way. New social roles emerged slowly and new habits developed slowly. Knowledge became transferable without any necessary genetic connection: a novelty in evolution’s developments. With these means of relating to others emerged a way of relating to oneself. Prior to this, there was no separation between oneself and other because there was no way to understand such a separation; no way to distinguish between subject and object. With language came the ability to fracture the perceived world into two domains: the imperial domain of the “I” which is the object that one attributes one’s intentions to, and the “other” domain which is the arena where other agents roam about with their own intentions.
So, to sum up: language played a major role in social development but also to help cleave into our perceptions a massive schism between what was once a contiguous theater of life. So, its main advantages are: 1) it allowed humans to store knowledge in transferable form; 2) it allowed us to label objects and actions and agents – objects which perform actions and have intentions; 3) it allowed us to collaborate with one another in an intricate manner by developing plans and certain expectations.
What is the internet doing today? Well, it is definitely a huge advancement of communication just as language originally was. With the internet, we can interact with one another from right across the globe in a matter of seconds. Language initially only permitted communication within an ear’s range. Later, obviously came written language which was another huge development which I am glossing over here. In early language, knowledge became storable and transferable through songs and instructions. Again, the transfer can only take place at a distance where sound waves can travel but also, the storage was reliant on fallible human memory. With the internet, knowledge is now storable on computer hardware and in many places all over the world to be accessed from any place in the world instantly. With early language, collaboration became possible between individuals at arm’s length from one another. Now, with the internet we can collaborate with individuals from all around the world. Effectively, the internet has reduced massive distances to the click of a button. Before language, humans were, more or less, isolated within their own little worlds striving for survival individually; although they traveled in groups and took care of one another, the evolutionary benefits of these behaviors are reciprocal. Come language and humans now interact, collaborate, and share knowledge with their group. This group begins to function as one unit as humans in direct contact with one another became intimately close and started to share information with each other. Today, with the internet, the unit we are integrating into spans the globe. The information we have access to is spread out all across the planet and the people we can interact with are at distances near and far from where we are situated. Also, the symbolic representational capacity of the language is increased with the ability to interact via videos, pictures, and all manner of complex audio-visual intricacies.
So, with all these added capacities of the internet, our culture will undergo a corresponding change. It will re-organize itself around the equality of the internet and the group mentalities of nations originally limited by the inability of instant transfer of information across large distances will dissolve into a group mentality of one group: the global group. There will not be a need for land demarcations and borders. Instead, we might see boundaries drawn based on commonalities of interest as opposed to a simple commonality of geography. No longer will one be limited by their global position in their ability to choose who to interact with. If the entire global population really does eventually get integrated into this planetary system, who can predict what sort of life humans will be leading? Will a so-called “global consciousness” emerge? Will we all become virtual creatures, effectively navigating the backwaters of a computational matrix, entirely negligent of the physical world we actually inhabit? But what’s to deny the physicality of this virtual world anyway? It is just an elaboration on the abstraction potential language installed in us when it was developed. Initial languages allowed us to dwell in relatively benign abstract worlds of concepts and thoughts. Now the internet is taking a leap into making an abstraction of the entire actual world and representing it as computed information instantly accessible and widely distributed. Basically, the internet can be looked at as either: an extension of the human perceptual organs to all around the world, or a radically shortening of all distances to the distance of an arm’s length. It just exponentially elevates the reach of human communication.