Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

As posted on (yes, it is adapted from an earlier post with the same title)

For tens of thousands of years of human history the world over looked like our village landscape - no running water, no electricity, no cars, no phones, no printing press and low literacy. You have to wonder then how all of a sudden some parts of the world experienced an explosion in innovation and enterprise over the short span of a few hundred years to bring this all about. What was the driver? Surely it didn’t happen because of a king handing out gold coins or jewels from his coffers to the peasants (‘financial inclusion’?).

Some time ago I was lamenting the difficulty of getting new product information to people who live in the villages – no phone, poor road connectivity - and my husband very helpfully offered up that it sounds like we need to have heralds, messengers and town criers like they did in medieval Europe. That got me thinking.

A little bit of scouting turned up that in medieval Europe, messengers were hard-working, talented folk. They had to be excellent horsemen, able to travel up to 100 km in a day, skilled topographers able to navigate unmapped terrain and talented communicators; a tough combination. These were prestigious jobs, well paid and protected by official decree. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ was in fact law. And it wasn’t just the Royal government that employed messengers. Businesses employed them as well. Interfacing with the far traveling messengers were the town-criers, who shouted out news on everything from wars, taxes and jobs to local markets and events. What struck me was that in England and some other parts of Europe, Town Criers were a government position, appointed by the Mayor of each town, to keep the citizens informed of matters of both national and local importance. In fact, interfering with a Town Crier in the execution of his duty was once a serious offense. The British Empire apparently took the job of spreading news and information very seriously. It strikes me what an extraordinarily powerful system this was and I would be willing to wager that the rise of civilizations and the spread of empires were closely correlated to faster mechanisms of information flow.

I started to look back in history a little – what about the Ancient Greek and Roman empires? The Olympic marathon itself is a tribute to the system of message runners. Indeed, the first evidence of such messengers is from Ancient Greece in 500 BC. As the legend goes, Pheidippides, a Greek runner, ran all day and night from Marathon to Athens (the terrain was too tough on horses) to deliver the message of victory against the Persians, dropping dead of exhaustion as soon as his message was delivered. “No finer way to die” it was declared. Running messages was a highly prestigious, respected position. Information was King, literally. And the Persians? Even as they clashed with the Greeks they were at their peak and had expanded their empire widely. As early as 500 BC Cyrus the Great, and then Darius, extended the road network and set up the first postal system, posting stations where new men and fresh horses would be available at any moment to carry a message further on. Information traveled at the fastest documented speeds of the time – up to 350 km a day. In the 1800s the Pony Express of the United States set up the fastest postal system from coast to coast that operated year round, come rain or snow, paying its horsemen 25 times that of an unskilled labourer.

When the messenger got paid so handsomely and so much importance and emphasis was placed on information flow in the west, it is no surprise that it gave way to the subsequent innovations of things like the printing press, the telegraph and ultimately modern telecommunications. Here in rural India finding out what’s up in the next town or anywhere else is clearly not an organized priority, neither of the people themselves nor of the government. Imagine if there was a way for people to know what was up! That’s really powerful for enterprise, for collaboration, for progress. So instead of financial inclusion, I think the new mantra should be information inclusion.


  1. I totally agree with your thinking - there is a serious deficiency in information flow that negatively impacts decision-making. There are a number of problems like inadequate education, a lack of transparency and cultural issues that get in the way. If only people would realize that there is more to gain by working together than competing against one another.

  2. Taking forward comment by Anish, I would like to draw attention of Dr. Tara to the fact that, West as compared to India is largely a less religious, has a very amalgamating culture and has comparatively lesser social divisions, and i believe that such a environment is very conducive to build trusts, relationships and put to constructive use the information made available. These are very important for any scientific or economic activity to prosper. What are your suggestions on these and how can India overcome these barriers.