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Writing and Reading as Technology (2): Half-baked Beginnings

Writing as Infant Technology

… the thing about new technologies… is that it takes several generations for us to decide what they’re good for. They’re kind of like babies. I think that technologies have to find the right job and that’s our job as their parents to kind of help guide them to find the right role and it takes some time. It takes some time and more importantly, it takes use.

Kevin Kelly
A Mesopotamian tablet recording a list of barley portions distributed as wages to farm labourers 5,000 years ago. It shows a very early stage of cuneiform writing in which circular holes were used for numbers alongside symbols representing the items being counted. Image and text: British Library

To the best of our knowledge writing began life as accountancy, when a counting system based on clay tokens representing goods like bushels of grain (surviving from as far back as 7500 BC) evolved ever so slowly into a system of mark making (c. 3350 BC). This in turn evolved (more rapidly) into a more complex written script, with the first true “documents” so far discovered coming from the Sumerian city of Uruk in around (sources vary) 3200 – 3000BC.

4,000 year old tablet recording workers wages
This one is an account of wages paid to workers c.2100–2000 BC, Southern Iraq. Image and text: British Library

After the Flood

It took a lot longer for writing to find its place and become writing in the sense that we thinking about it today. A brief tour of the oldest surviving texts in the earliest written genres looks something like:

Religious writing c. 2600 BC
Self-help guide (wisdom literature) c. 2550 BC
Military record c. 2500 BC
Poem by named author c. 2300 BC (also the first named author of any kind, the first named poet, and the first named woman writer)
Religious Epic (flood narrative) c. 2100 BC
Written law code c. 2100 BC
Medical text c. 1800 BC
Love poem c. 1650 BC
Recipe c. 1800
Customer complaint letter c. 1750 BC
Diplomatic correspondence c. 1350 BC
Map of the world c. 600 BC

A long time coming

The point, really, is that the history of writing and reading reveals the same messy tangle of stumbling innovation as most other technologies – and it seems that the more powerful technologies are, they longer they take to grow up and find their major “jobs”.

We simply don’t know what new technologies are good for: five-hundred years or more from the first financial records to the earliest examples of other kinds of writing is a long time, but we have to assume that these innovations weren’t immediately obvious at the time.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...