Speed of Words

Hey, how fast can you get a message to the nearest major settlement you don’t live in?

an icon of a love letter

I bring this up because I’m about to talk about fantasy worldbuilding, okay? We’re about to get into the cool dork stuff in a minute, but before we get going we’re going to wind up talking about a bunch of real world communication stuff that you may not have examined unless you’re like me and hang out with cool academics talking about it.

First of all, when you think about the ramifications of communication speed in your world, you need to understand that communication technology includes a lot of things you may not even be thinking about. There are things like population density and language and number systems and – like it’s not just this linear flow that goes Town Crier -> Letter -> Telegram, Maybe -> Phone -> The Internet.

You and I, in the real world, are used to a lot of options for communication and used to them having a lot of flexibility. They’re all the byproduct of infrastructure and technology, but some of the technology that drives them isn’t what you or I would consider ‘high tech.’ Someone had to invent address and postal delivery systems, but that’s a system you can do with even the most modest kind of technology that can record information. You don’t even need a written language for a postal system, it’s just really good for scaling up. Scaling up is one of the big tricks here, because if you have to send a message and you can only say it aloud, then you’re dealing with a message that a person can memorise and share. A writing system lets you really densely stash information on transferrable objects that you can transport, which means one aspect for That is, you need to care about volume.

That’s not even taking into account the great interconnected communication matrix you and I are interfacing with now. I wrote this weeks ago and you’re reading it now and we are interfacing as a direct result of a type of communication system that runs through the oceans deep enough that only sharks can harm it. That’s pretty swanky as communication technology works, but it’s not ubiquitous and the technology that makes it up ranges from the actual physical objects and also the actual protocols, the rules that make it work. This is an impressive technology, but it doesn’t need the cables and electronics and all the things you’re familiar with as ‘the internet’ to work. Famously, you can run the IP technology over Carrier Pigeons. This is important because that technology is about ensuring reliability.

Okay, so sending a message to the nearest other settlement. In my case, that can be complicated by the question of ‘what’s the next place?’ I live in a suburb. It’s connected to another suburb that for legal reasons is a different place based on an arcane set of rules about where post offices got built. The next place over for me is a place that I can comfortably walk to. For me to take a message there, I can walk a little distance and bam, there I go, I’ve got a message to the nearby settlement. But you might live in a place that’s named after some dude and a hill or creek or bunker, and therefore the nearest place to you involves travelling to a gas station that is at least an hour’s walk away, and even that only counts as a settlement technically. There’s a concern there that’s about distance.

Okay, so speed of communication relates to the space, and it relates to the technologies for communication. Know what else is important? Precision of communication. How reliable can the information exchanged be? This is one of those things that ties into more language technology. A number system, for example, can allow for very precise communication of sorts, but if you remember your history stories about when English adopted Arabic numerals, Roman Numerals were a number system that had precision, but it was hard to consistently communicate or relate to. Mistakes got made because the number system was bad. This is also why Australia decimalised our currency, because the previous system, while consistent and precise, was hard to interact with in a way that meant people made mistakes and money got lost in tracking.

an icon of a speedometer

Alright, there, that’s our basic premises. Speed of communication relates to volume, reliability, distance and precision. And they’re not going to be equally distributed.

Now, for most worldbuilding, you can look to comparable examples for things, but you might find that transforms things away from ‘normal’ for you. If you’re a stickler for realistic representation of distance, for example, and your setting is something like, say, Napoleonic Europe, you might not like the way that a space like America gets one letter a year from the other side of the world. And that’s okay, we’re used to a lot of really messed up speeds for communication. Instant communication is pretty common nowadays…

But there’s also a whole bunch of ways that this technology can be tuned. You know that there was a series of mechanical semaphor signals across Europe? A culture could use bonfires and long-distance viewing techniques to do regular communication. A hilly nation could have a long-distance whistling technique for regular transmission of messages with something like a bullroarer, for example.

Once you involve magic things get extra complicated.

In traditional D&D, there’s a spell called Sending, which depending on edition allows for long-distance short message communication at an instant speed. Give that technology a reason to exist and you’ll wind up with businesses using it to do sendings regularly. If there’s any reason to exist – like, say, countries that do trade, or have reasons to care about what’s going on with each other’s military movements – then a sending network seems to be pretty much mandatory? Really early? Every day, standard messages, with codebooks of information to maximise the transmission? Like these are the things a state can do. Instant communication transforms things – when you can know what’s coming before it arrives and you don’t get surprised, you can start doing logistical planning for things like military and trade.

In a setting like Avatar: The Last Airbender, earthbenders kind of leapfrog the technological need for things like metal foundries and movable type; a bender can just make the plates for printing. They don’t have to last a long time, they just have to have reliable and predictable practice. This means that you can have printable, high-volume forms of communication, like books and other forms of disposable transmission. That’s not even accounting for the way that electricity such as lightning benders can wield could be used for telegraph style communication if anyone wants to make the infrastructure.

And the thing is this can cut both ways. A setting like Mass Effect is one where you have all the modern day technological instant communication and then a bunch more which was also really stupid and worse – like, texting is one of the most efficient ways to transmit information, but to be part of its game interface, Mass Effect instead makes everyone use audio logs so they can be broadcasted while you’re doing other things. See also Bioshock and System Shock, which again, turn to everyone talking into tape machines, and if enough people do that as general process, even though it’s a terrible way to do things like shop for things, then everyone’s going to do it.

What’s more, this isn’t all equally distributed. A community of grassland wanderers can be ‘next door’ comparatively speaking to a city full of people sending magical messages every day. One of those groups isn’t going to be as interconnected with other people over long distance but also, they’re probably not going to be vulnerable on that vector for things like misinformation or logistical failure. If you don’t care about the Suez Canal, you don’t care that Big Boat Got Stuck. Which means communication speed, the convenience and access to it creates new entanglements.

an icon of a candlestick phone

Consider then the list:

  • Volume
  • Reliability
  • Distance
  • Precision
  • Infrastructure
  • Entanglements

Each of these ideas presents questions that you can then examine in terms of communication speed, and what they do for your world.