Drum Talk

Next Thursday, the InfoAge Class will be presenting or discussing early forms of communication. I opted to do a practical application piece. Having read James Gleick’s chapter on the African Talking Drums, my curiosity piqued so badly that I found a little drum of my own. The troubling aspect of all this is, learning how to play in order to communicate is rather difficult and the amount of people who know how to play fairly few. The reality of all this is that I may need to drop the project and come to class with a piece of paper in my hand and tears on my cheek. Well, perhaps I am exaggerating, yet it still stands that given a limited time frame, I cannot get the device worked out quickly enough.

Let me just share a video of a master player at work: [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4oQJZ2TEVI[/youtube]

He has a great style, but I am wondering if the style of play and the art of communicating what Carrington described not grossly disconnected somehow. If this is so, how/why/when? The easy answer is the people playing no longer need talking drums to communicate over great distances of space. No one has altered the device. You still use your left arm to squeeze the cords around the drum in order to change its pitch, yet the people playing today are not the same as those playing it before them. That may seem like an obvious statement. However, consider the notion that the technology hasn’t changed. The context, which that technology used to exist in, has vanished. I talk as if that vanishing act is new, but Carrington notes in his slim text on talking drums, that even he noticed fewer boys learning how to play messages on the drums.

The drums present two learning issues. First, as an early form of communication, fewer people use or bother studying them. Perhaps language/drum enthusiasts go out of their way to learn it, but like technology such as the telegraph, knowledge of how to decipher the messages has fallen to the wayside. There is a sort of irony to advancing technologies. They feature pieces of older technology, yet those of us who know how to use the most update to date technology would be hard pressed to even deal with VHS or audio cassettes. What I am trying to get at is, early technology does not imply simple technology. One must not assume an early technology to be any easier to manipulate than the modern piece. We lack the context in which people used/developed the technology. We also have our brains reformatted and calibrated for certain types of machinery. So, the earlier pieces of tech require a shift in thought process, which truly is an art of patience.

Secondly, the talking drums themselves our linked to a language that I have no background in. Much like not knowing Morse code, even if I could operate the device, I would not understand the messages I am sending or receiving. Call it foreign technology if you will. I am a foreigner to the technology of talking drums in two ways, namely locality and temporal. There is a foreign language component. Talking drummers model their message after a base tonal language and must assume that the listener or recipient will do the same. Not having the foreign language base becomes a problem for the casual learner. You can mimick sounds, but without understanding meaning, you are only babbling and not speaking. I already noted temporal issues in the above paragraph. Looking at a different time makes you a sort of foreigner, even if that time is within your own location’s history. You are still disconnected and potentially unaware of certain contexts. Yes, early American English is still English. No, you still would have a whole lexicon of slang and idiomatic phrases that would mystify you, much like a foreigner with a beginning grasp of another country’s language. This foreignness stacks hurdles for me to leap over in this project. It is happening slowly but still happening.

In learning how to communicate with the Talking Drums, I am meeting up with individuals in Fredericksburg who know a thing or two, but the prospects of me communicating with the drum are looking grim. Who knows perhaps I will make a breakthrough soon? If nothing else, I can talk about the links between the drum and language.

Morning Musing on Madness


The Madness of technological development, is it brand new? At what specific moment did Chewbacca punch the Millenium Falcon into hyperspace? What if we have always been rapidly moving through technology? I’m sorry, did your mind just get blown? Well, don’t feel bad so did mine.

Brian Winston in his introduction to Media Technology and Society notes, “the storm of progress blows so hard as to obscure our vision of what is actually happening. What is hyperbolised as a revolutionary train of events can be seen as a far more evolutionary and less transforming process.” If anyone is ever interested in the development of communication and technology in the United States but perhaps do not have the time to read a full fledged book on the matter, let me suggest Gregory Downey’s short piece on the topic. The brevity of the book encapsulates the persistent whirlwind feel. Each chapter in Downey speaks to the historical moment as well as its social implication yet finishes with a bridge to today’s technology, a short musing.

In selecting Winston’s introduction and Downey’s short work, Dr. McClurken also prompted a question and offered a tentative answer. Winston questions the newness or revolutionary aspects to our information age when he notes that each technology was not born in a vacuum but rather had predecessors and early conceptual origins. The author makes a case for historical laws that mark the success or failure of certain technologies.

According to Winston, we somehow lose all sense of what occurred in the not so distant past with our technology (15). We all have collective amnesia that television stormed onto the scene and changed life or that radio became an essential technology, carrying all the same new ideas and problems as any other piece of technology. Both Winston and Downey demand a rethinking of the developments in technological history.

Are we existing in some new whirlwind of events that hurdles us ever faster to some new era of Information flow/overload? I am not so certain. I wonder where discussions this morning (Thursday, Sept 8 ) will take us. As a (let’s face it) experimental seminar, I am eager to see how our first class discussion goes. Thus far we have talked about brass tacks, which haven’t been fully hammered down just yet, and tools required for this semester. So, here’s where we start the actual water slide.

Get in the pool.

Photo by James Pichora!



Sources for today:

  • Brian Winston Media Technology and Society
  • Gregory J. Downey Technology and Communication in American History

Step Into My Infotorium

Welcome to this new fangled space where I intend on dissecting readings, reflecting on class meetings, and wonder about where technology has taken us. What’s that technology doesn’t shape us? We shape it? Maybe. I think if the debate of “who is in control language or us” still continues, then the jury has yet to make a decision on technology’s influence on our day to day lives.

In welcoming you, I also will introduce myself at this present moment. I am a super senior at the University of Mary Washington, who welcomed graduating late for taking Dr. McClurken’s History of the Info Age. While I have brushed shoulders with the likes of Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, I do not possess a wealth of knowledge on information technology or how we got here today. From my eyes, the internet started with long dial tones and ridiculously high fees and has become more central to my existence every year. It’s a tool…oh and maybe an addiction…or perhaps my life support? While I access technology and ponder its applications in my daily life and interactions, I do not take the time to consider the historical impact and the footsteps that have led us all here to this moment. Technological immersion. “Google” it. It’s not official until it’s “Facebook official.” These ideas and concepts exist so closely to ourselves that we are soon unable unwilling to critically analyze what has happened and indeed happening.

Dr. McClurken’s course promises to be a fresh wind in the doldrums of the information sea. We will ask questions, investigate, scratch our heads, wonder “what if?”, and tell a story about this Information Age, whatever that might be. For the moment, I intend on raising my sails and allowing the new winds to guide me to my treasure. I am taking this class not just to analyze and understand the events but also myself. I am a product of a world of growing connections with a neural network that handles chunks of data that come forth in a flood. So while many of the posts you will see here will be reflections on my reading, you will also encounter my more personal reflections on technology. Perhaps this blog will center around a core set of concepts such as the development of written signs and their transmission through file sharing or the technical side of the development of the internet. As of now, I can only promise to keep writing and hope it all works out in the end!

I leave you all with this video by the great Michael Wesch which I saw during his presentation at Faculty Academy this past May.


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