Does how we communicate change who we are?

When Dick Fosbury invented a new way of doing the high jump, he beat all-comers at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  England’s only major football […]

When Dick Fosbury invented a new way of doing the high jump, he beat all-comers at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  England’s only major football trophy came when Alf Ramsay changed the way football teams were set up, with his ‘wingless wonders’ at the 1966 World Cup.  Spain ended 44 years without a trophy by playing a new style of football, Tiki-Taka, which has seen them win the last three major tournaments, and is set to reassert Liverpool’s dominance of football in England. No doubt many athletes and coaches are fine-tuning their own revolutions as London 2012 draws near.  Increases in sporting performance normally follow a gradual progression, but occasionally there are technical breakthroughs that propel performance forward a leap.

Is the same true for our relationship with our fellow humans?  Could the current obsession with sustainability – businesses falling over themselves to show compassion for the planet and its people – be the result of a technical breakthrough?  It’s certainly not a gradual progression from the greed-is-good 1980s and materialism of much of the 1990s.

History suggests that the evolution of our relationship with each other has leapt forward on key occasions because of technical advances in communication.

The ancient Greeks developed the art of public speaking in the 5th and 6th centuries BC – of oratory and rhetoric.   Speakers understood the rules and were able to share their ideas more powerfully.  People had to listen to other points of view in turn and democracy was born – rule by the many rather than the few.  People had a say in the lives of their fellow citizens.

Later, when cheap production of paper was made possible through the world’s first paper mill in Baghdad in the 7th century AD, wider and quicker communication of ideas became possible.  This saw the birth of the Islamic Golden Age when religion and law split and secular philosophy emerged, revolutionising man’s relationship with his fellow man and his god. And Shakespeare’s genius found its voice after technical advances in printing had taken root in England in the 16th century, capturing the fundamental human truths of our relationships with our families, our friends, our rivals and our country, for an entire population.

Now the internet has enabled – and forced – each of us to see the lives of all our fellow planet dwellers.  The mother in Manhattan sees the mother in Madras, the tea picker in Kenya sees the tea shop in Kensington, the student in Paris sees the child labourer in Pakistan.   And all can communicate more widely than previous generations could ever have imagined.

In each case – oratory, paper, printing and the internet – we reinvented the way we communicate, and in doing so reinvented our relationship with each other.  The communication revolutions leapt us forward as a species, with greater understanding of and empathy towards each other.  It’s difficult to imagine the sustainability agenda – predicated as it is on recognising the needs of others – existing today without the communications breakthrough of the internet.

What next?  Who knows.  Maybe the next communications breakthrough will be the collective consciousness, the hive mind of the Borg. The only certain thing is that we will find ever new ways of communicating, and in doing so we will revolutionise how we see and treat each other.