Information Ther-iology: African Talking Drums, Morse Code and Now
“ The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning” — Claude Shannon (1948)
Growing up as a child in an African society predisposes you to dancing whenever you hear the beating of drums. Only the elders actually ‘hear’ and understand the speech of the drums, unless you were born into a family whose lineage beats drums. We call such families “Ayan”. Both the children and elders of the ‘Ayan’ family make and understand speech made with drums.
If you are Non-African, you probably will have no idea that drums conveyed information at all. In many African culture, drums have been used as a medium of signalling, along with the budgle and the bell; to relay small messages across vast lands during war times, to signal attack; retreat; come back home, prayers, poetry, way before the arrival of Europeans in Africa. This might strike a nerve if you are have read about the Nordic/Vikings war culture and other Middle Eastern war culture. But the African talking drums does more than relay war strategies, you can praise, ridicule and talk with someone who is right beside or across you with the talking drums, leaving other unlearned listeners in confusion.
What makes the African Talking Drum special is during those ancient times, the drums carry messages faster than any traveller on foot or horseback, it even beats smoke signals in terms of speed and decoding.
The Europeans who described Africans as “primitive” and “animistic” were shocked by this technology. Mind you, it is a technology. The wheel is a technology. Yes, the one on your luggage. It is lack of reading history, that makes people think technology began with computers. That’s why the African Talking Drum needed to be included in the trilogy of information technology.
The African drummers quickly recognised that lots of information could be lost during transmission, which why they added a little phrase to each message to give it context and more understanding. A mechanism that Claude Shannon also discovered (allocating extra bits for disambiguation and error correction), and used for the basic information technology that all modern communications is based on. Every language has redundancy built in; that’s why people can understand text riddled with errors.
wlcm t mdium,
hme of wrtrs
hpe u enjy ur sty
Far away in a very distant place, Samuel F.B Morse; yeah, that Morse Code guy, he is the one. Funny thing is he did not even think in terms of a code at first, but “a system of signs for letters, to be indicated and marked by a quick succession of strokes or shocks of the galvanic current”. His primary method was to send numbers, one digit at a time, with dots and pauses.
234 — .. … ….
For the sake of speed, in saving strokes shorter sequences of dots and dashes for the most common letters — E, followed T, and Z. ‘T’ was promoted to the a single dash _ , for _ _ .
It was reported that “ The clerks who attend at the recording instrument become so expert in their curious hieroglyphics, that they do not need to look at the printed record to know what the message under reception is”
What left me drawn to finally dedicating my time to learning about Morse Code and actually learning it, was its depiction in the now popular, and award-winning drama “Parasites”. Someone living secretly in the basement of an affluent family transmitted messages every night to the outside world using Morse code through flashing of an electric bulb whose on/off switch was actually located in the basement. Crazy stuff, right?, how can the switch be in the basement and no one noticed. I will leave you to see the movie to know!
Now you see why the new tech/web3 or 2 or whatever number, need to read a little bit of history before professing to “want to change the world” or “change how we communicate”.
To also read more about the African Talking Drum and the Morse Code, I will suggest you look into Chapter 1 of ‘The Information’ by James Gleick.
Thanks for reading!