Writing and Reading as Technology (11): Writing Rules

Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer (London, England).jpg
“I’m impressed”: Early Writing Tablet (Cuneiform) Recording Beer Rations (Late Uruk Culture, 3000 – 3100 BC)

The technology of writing isn’t simply the infrastructure of thought: it’s the enabling infrastructure of most of the complex activities we think of as government. For good and bad, writing is what enables administration and social control to extend beyond the tribe.

People today worry that too much of our innovation is virtual – in software and the world of bits of information, rather than atoms. This great episode of the BBC’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” reminds us of the many ways in which innovations in virtualisation can lead (inevitably lead?) to new realities.

Can you imagine a world without writing? Without any writing at all?

No forms to fill in of course, no tax returns, but also no literature, no science, no ‘history’. It is almost beyond imagining, because our modern life, and above all our modern government, is based almost entirely on writing. Of all mankind’s great advances, the development of writing is surely the giant: I think you can say that it’s had more impact on the evolution of human society than any other invention. But when and where did it begin – and how? This programme’s object is a piece of clay, made just over five thousand years ago in a Mesopotamian city. It’s one of the earliest examples of writing that we know; it’s about beer and the birth of bureaucracy.

We tend to think of writing as being about poetry or fiction or history, but early literature in that sense was in fact oral – learnt by heart and recited or sung. You wrote down what you couldn’t learn by heart, what you couldn’t turn into verse, so that pretty well everywhere writing seems to have been about record-keeping, bean-counting, or, as in the case of this little tablet, beer-counting. Beer was the staple drink in Mesopotamia and was issued as rations to workers. Money, laws, trade, employment; this is the stuff of early writing, and it’s writing like the writing on this little tablet that changes the nature of state control and state power – bureaucratic and economic. Only later does writing move from rations to emotions; the accountants get there before the poets.

You could say that this isn’t writing in the strict sense, it’s more a kind of mnemonic, a repertoire of signs that can be used to carry quite complex messages. The crucial breakthrough to real writing came when it was first understood that a graphic symbol, like the one for beer on our tablet, could be used to mean not just the ‘thing’ it showed, but what the word for the ‘thing’ sounded like. At this point writing became phonetic, and then all kinds of new communication became possible.

When writing in this full sense was taking off, life as a pioneer scribe must have been very exciting. The creation of new sound signs was probably quite a fast-moving process, and as they developed, the signs would have had to be listed – the earliest dictionaries if you like – beginning an intellectual process of categorising things and relationships, that has never stopped since. Our little beer-ration tablet leads directly, and swiftly, to a completely different way of thinking about ourselves and about the world that surrounds us.

But what does it do to the human mind when writing becomes part of culture? We asked John Searle, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley:

“I think you don’t understand the full import of the revolution brought by writing if you think of it just as preserving information into the future. There are two areas where writing makes an absolutely decisive difference to the whole history of the human species. One area is complex thought. There’s a limit to what you can do with the spoken word. You cannot really do higher mathematics or even more complex forms of philosophical argument of the kind that I am interested in, unless you have some way of writing it down and scanning it. So it’s not adequate to think of writing just as a way of recording, for the future, facts about the past and the present. On the contrary, it is immensely creative. “But now a second thing about writing, which I think is just as important as that, and that is when you write down you don’t just record what already exists, but there are elements in which you create new entities. You create money, you create corporations, you create governments, you create complex forms of society, and writing is essential for all of that.

A History of the World in 100 Objects – Early Writing Tablet

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