Talking Drums and Senseless Societies

Caroline Crimmins

James Gleick’s national bestseller, The Information has increased my knowledge of past, present, and predictions for future knowledge and its effects. Similarly to Tom Standage’s The World in Six Glasses, Gleick addresses different technological innovations and how they have, and still are possibly, impacting the world and how we think and live. Standage’s novel addressed the most influential and popular six drinks that have shaped the society that we live in today. These drinks include beer, wine, coffee, tea, Coca Cola, and spirits. Each of these drinks, like the innovations and inventors Gleick writes about, changed the society that people knew. Coca Cola, like iPhones, printing presses and more, took the world by storm. Gleick’s book and Standage’s book have similar formats in that they both address important influences on societies in distinct chapters. Both books prove how important inventions can be in societies and the whole world. 

The invention I was most impressed by was the creation of the talking drums in sub-Saharan Africa, which could communicate poetic messages using the tonal differences over long distances. The passage I picked talks about Carrington’s realization when he finally discovered the important inflections in the drum tones. Gleick writes, “In solving the enigma of the drums, Carrington found the key in a central fact about the relevant African languages. They are tonal languages, in which meaning is determined as much by rising or falling pitch contours as by distinctions between consonants or vowels. This feature is missing from most Indo-European languages, including English, which uses tone only in limited syntactical ways: for example to distinguish questions from declarations. But for other languages, including, most famously, Mandarin and Cantonese, the tone has primary significance in distinguishing words. So it does in most African languages. Even when Europeans learned to communicate in these languages, they generally failed to grasp the importance of tonality, because they had no experience with it. When they transliterated the words they heard into the Latin alphabet, they disregarded pitch altogether. In effect, they were color-blind” (Gleick 23). At this moment, I realized not only how egocentric cultures could be, but also blind to cultures which at the time they considered “below them.” 

A multitude of people had passed through those African countries and civilizations, privileged to hear the beautiful beats and tones, blessing their ears. They, like most people in their culture, were practically tone-deaf. Although the messages communicated through the drums were quite lengthy- “about eight times as long as their spoken equivalents” (Gleick 27)- the poetic aspect added a cultural beauty that can be quickly overlooked, as it was. Because the culture of the visitors did not utilize the variations of tone, except in punctuation, they paid little to no attention to the technical aspects of a unique language happening before their eyes and ears. Although tonal differences are used minimally in English, they are quite popular in languages like Mandarin, as seen in Gleick’s quote on page twenty-three, or written above. 

Today in society, we are absolutely obsessed with technology- phones, laptops, tablets, practically anything we can get our hands-on. Like flies, we swarm towards the light, unaware of all the magic happening behind the scenes. In this respect, I believe that English 340 is one of the most beneficial classes I have taken so far at SUNY Geneseo. There are so many technical aspects that are glazed over for our convenience as technology users. Before this class, I had never heard of markdown (or markup), CSS, or how to find out what is behind my GUI. If someone had told me I would be learning the things I am now, I would have said that was impossible. Society today is truly “color-blind” (Gleick 23) to the technology at our fingertips. Gleick solidifies the connection between computing and the humanities by giving the reader the example of the talking drums. Something that was right in front of their eyes was unknown, just like the many mysteries in the devices we are glued to.

Gleick’s best-seller allows us to reflect on our origins in technology as a world. Without the technology we invented back then, we would have nowhere near what we have now. Every step is progress, but it is important to be in tune with all cultures and inventions. Something as small as an inflection at the end of a sound can change certain meanings drastically. By learning about the past, we are more inclined to learn about the present and the future of technology. The more we know, the more aware we will be of language, technology, and the connections between computing and the humanities.