Let’s go back. Way back. Back into time.
Back after the time when the only people that existed were troglodytes, but long before Apple’s iPhone X Plus ruled our world.
The drums beat, beat, beat, and the people knew, knew, knew. The message conveyed. Technology won.
I was working in Africa a few years ago when I experienced a moment going back to the earliest of times. There was a devastating malaria epidemic going on. We were taking medicines collected across North Dakota to ravaged villagers across Malawi.
We loaded our Range Rover with medical bags, boxes, protein drinks, and high-nutrition crackers. We arrived at the first village unannounced and caught all the villagers by surprise.
Some people were in the fields, others were bathing at home. Just a few saw us arrive but that was enough. “Mzungus” they cried out. Dropping their hoes and wrapping themselves in towels, they ran toward our truck laughing, shouting, and clapping their hands.
At first it was a small handful, but within minutes more came in from the bush. “How do they know we’re here?” I asked my colleagues. Then we heard the soft gentle drum.
A log hollowed out and hit by a stone. A clear rhythm I couldn’t understand, but which brought in people running from all directions.
When we arrived at the next village several miles away, they had been readied. Women lined the road and swayed in dance. Children had washed faces and hands and still wet shirts. The village chief had set out his chairs. The medicine man wore his welcoming mask.
The largest of the ancient Greek galley ships had 440 rowers. They worked in perfect coordination while sitting on three different levels and in dozens of parallel rows. For the oars to strike the water together, the human clockwork-like rhythm had to be perfect.
They had no gears or digitally-switching timers. There were only men who worked in forced or voluntary tandem, while sharing sweat, commitment, and a singular mind. Coordination kept in perfect synchronization by that omnipresent beat, beat, beat.
Technology evolves to meet the needs of those who need it to be mastered.
During America’s antebellum era of the Civil War, the machinery of the voice and, again, the rhythm of song transmitted hidden messages over long distances and across dangerous ground.
The spiritualist song, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” conveyed to slaves working in the field that a group was about to escape. The message of the harmonic “Follow the Drinking Gourd” gave instructions on how to use the Big Dipper to travel safely to the north.
Twelve years after the American Civil War ended, Alexander Graham Bell invented his telephone. His father-in-law then created Bell Telephone to take that cutting-edge technology to the masses.
Wires first carried the messages that had earlier been transmitted by that beat, beat, beat, but by 1900 wireless calls were being made. My neighbor’s uncle, Martin Cooper, invented the handheld cell phone in 1973. He’s also credited with making the first-ever cell phone prank call—to his top competitor at AT&T.
Flying toward us at an ever-increasing pace, technology doubles and triples at a mind-splitting speed. Cooper’s Law, formulated by Martin Cooper, states that the number of phone and data calls that can be simultaneously made doubles every 30 months. Moore’s Law, by Intel founder Gordon Moore, asserts that processing capability doubles every two years.
Beat, beat, beat go the drums at their ever-faster pace. To move the ship quicker, the sweaty oars must go deeper, the fatigued arms stretch out farther, the fallen men dragged to the side quicker.
When we approached our fifth village in Africa on that hot and sunny August afternoon, there were well over a thousand excited people dancing and clapping together. In our near-empty truck, we had supplies for maybe a tenth of them.
We slowed our truck and waved. They cheered, and we cheered back. Some swayed and danced. Together with them we laughed.
And we kept on driving.
For the safety of all, we had to tell technology, “Enough.”