I recently read a review of Writing on the wall: Social Media – the first 2000 years by Tom Standage, which is about the concept of a social circle of friends and colleagues that gathers to share information. His premise is that the social media we know of today has its origins in ancient times. Maria Popova writes in “Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome” that the predecessor of our current understanding of social media obviously looked different, but was “analogous to anything we see on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and platforms we’re yet to imagine.” (Check out Popova’s review at: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/25/writing-on-the-wall-social-media-first-2000-years/). In Cicero’s time, the medium was “papyrus scrolls passed around by hand,” and it was very much human-powered, which is the essence of how social media works. What struck me most about Standage, however, was what I discovered when I looked up the text in my university library: I discovered that Standage is no stranger to providing a historical context to current concerns and thought processes. Several of his books are accounts of items of daily significance, and their evolution in history. As a result, his books are deeply engaging to a non-scholarly audience, but equally of interest to any scholar who is interested in pre-modern history.
In 2006, Standage released a book called A History of the World in Six Glasses, which outlines the way certain common and well-known beverages have both influenced and been influenced by the passage of time. He begins with the discussion of beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt (9) and then goes on to the place of wine in Greece and Rome (43). He discusses spirits and colonization (93), as well as the British Empire’s relationship with tea (175). According to Standage, coffee has two time periods of note: during the age of reason (133) and slightly later, in internet coffeehouses (151). Finally, he describes Coke as “globalization in a bottle” (250). Our correlations of beverages and historical periods are more than just vague inclinations: beverages have a unique relevance to the history of western civilization.
Six Glasses is engaging because it uses recognizable, common objects to connect his audience to history. The remoteness of Mesopotamia is perceived to be less distant because this early civilization consumed this similar product. Similarly, we can understand the superficiality of colonization in a new light with the discussion of both coffee and tea. Even young children are aware of the ubiquity of Coke; in fact, the general populace may very well be “hooked” by the initial list: what do Coke commercials in Japan have to do with beer in Ancient Egypt? Well, it turns out that they have everything to do with each other, and the non-academic audience is inexorably pulled into the framing of history which is both relevant and relatable.
In An Edible History of Humanity (2009), Standage takes a very similar approach; his chapters discuss food as it passes through different periods in western civilization. In chronological order, he lays out the beginnings of farming (3) – the movement from a hunter-gatherer society – and the relationship between food and power (31). Most reasonably well-read university students can discuss the relationship between industrialization (107) and colonization (85), but across two chapters of the text, Standage outlines how this relationship between supply and demand creates certain needs for food production. His final chapters are about the current problems in distribution and the developing world.
In contrast with the earlier text, An Edible History begins with a focus on western civilization in order to capture the reader’s attention, but ends by changing the perspective. Whereas Coke at the end of Standage’s text is still a recognizably American product (and this knowledge is appealing to a western-centred audience), the problem of distribution of food is not a western concern. This shift in focus places more imperative on the audience to call for social change. The audience who reads An Edible History likely picks up this book for the entertainment value of learning history through a commonly-known object, but they end up putting it down with a greater sense of the world as it is now, and not just as they know it.
This idea of taking the object – whether it be food or beverage – is carried on into Standage’s recent text, Writing on the Wall. Most people have a vague understanding of social media, and at the very least how social media is changing their lives in regards to information and social structures. Like the Coke example in the earlier text, social media is the hook that brings this audience to the book. While I have no academically- supported psychological understanding of what draws people to want to know about their personal histories, it is self-evident (to me, at least) that people want to know the history of the items, materials, and ideas that affect them the most.
With that in mind, I would propose a formula to engaging the modern audience in pre-modern history:
- Find an object or idea that has its roots in a pre-modern civilization.
- Trace the original object to the one in the present.
- Suggest how the object was both created by the people of its time period, but also influenced those people.
- Hypothesize ways that the historic world may have been different without that object.
- Demonstrate a trajectory between the historic time and the present time; the trick is to create a cognitive relationship between the past and the present through the person’s relationship to the object.
- Make suggestions for the future of that object: How will it affect the lives of the people using it?
For further reading, please read Popova’s article at brainpickings.com, check out Tom Standage’s texts at your local library. Other texts that focus on particular items: Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History or Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.
Gately, Iain. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Gotham, 2009. Print.
Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. London: Vintage, 2003. Print.
Standage, Tom. An Edible History of Humanity. New York: Walker & Co, 2009. Print.
—. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Co, 2006. Print.
—. Writing On The Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Popova, Maria. “Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome.” Rev. of Writing On The Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage. Brain Pickings. Web. 6 March 2015.