How the challenges we face in today’s digital age can be traced back to one of the most significant yet underrated innovations of all time—writing.

Ernest Hemingway writing. Image: Wortman

When you think “technology”, writing seldom comes to mind. Yet, the creation of writing remains one of the single most important human inventions of all time, giving humanity a history and a means to share information, disseminate science, and tell jokes. With every technological leap in history, knowledge becomes more widely distributed and easier to access; the trade-off being an evermore difficult race to maintain quality and preserve our attention. Now, more than ever, we ought to be conscious of these themes and lessons in history as we build for and live within our new digital reality.

A brief history of writing

Accountants are under-appreciated, considering they created the earliest forms of writing over 3000 years ago. Writing emerged as counters to keep track of goods and evolved over time to represent the world of abstract words and ideas. What began as pictures, grew more complicated and developed over time into alphabetic systems.

Cuneiform tablet. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Mesopotamia, as city-states were forming, farmers and central administrators needed a form of record-keeping. The solution was a distinctive wedge-shaped form of writing known as cuneiform. The big leap that enabled writing as we know it today, was the rebus principle. Draw a picture of a real-world object, but simultaneously have it represent sounds of speech. Suddenly, you’ve created another meaning out of a sign. You have a pun. It was these phonetic signs that allowed writing to break away from accounting.

Palette of King Narmer. Image: Dr. Amy Calvert

There’s an ancient palette that tells the story of King Narmer’s victory over Lower Egypt which made him the first pharaoh of a unified Egyptian state. Among the hieroglyphs, what stands out is a catfish carved atop a chisel; a seemingly random pair of images that only make sense in light of the rebus principle. Combined, they stand as sound values for the King’s name. Early forms of writing have in a way, immortalized an individual, preserving his name to this day.

With time, signs evolved into alphabets. The first Proto-Sinaitic alphabet took advantage of the fact that any language is composed of a limited number of sounds. The alphabet consisted of 22 letters, making it more than capable of transcribing speech. The alphabet was invented only once and all present-day alphabets are derived from this original creation.

The printing press

Up until the 1400s however, writing was hard to come by. Scribes would hand copy books, taking up to three years to produce a single product. This meant books were limited and prohibitively expensive. It was the invention of paper and the printing press that spurred mass literacy and the spread of ideas across the globe.

Gutenberg’s printing press. Image:

Johann Gutenberg ushered in a new era of print with his innovation on the moveable type in 1445. Metal stamps of single letters could be rearranged into different words, sentences, and pages of text. Gutenberg’s printing press meant pages could be printed faster, requiring far less effort. A decrease in costs and increase in book supply led to a rise in literacy rates across Europe during the fifteenth century.

True then and still today, is that people tend to be rather bad at anticipating the impacts of novel technologies. Early on, the Catholic Church was the biggest early customer of the printing press. After all, the first book printed with movable type was Gutenberg’s bible. Soon, a large portion of the population had their own copy, enabling them to read and form opinions of their own. Sometimes though, those opinions didn’t align with the teachings from religious authority figures. The printing press, championed early on by the Catholic Church, ultimately undermined the religious institution and contributed to the Protestant Reformation by spreading knowledge and shifting power to the people.

The democratization of knowledge and information overload

Historian Albertine Gaur asserts:

“The two decades Gutenberg spent on the perfection of typography signalled the start of the modern period and that all subsequent scientific, political, ecclesiastical, sociological, economic and philosophical advances would not have been possible without the use and the influence of the printing press.”

No doubt, the follow-on effects of Gutenberg’s invention have shaped the modern world. But it’s also magnified issues like information overload and the challenge of distinguishing mere spread of information from credible, relevant information.

Since the advent of writing, as early as the 13th century, scholars have complained about the abundance of information:

“the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory.”
Image: David Flores

Post-Gutenberg, the need to manage information manifested in the formation of new standards, accreditations, as well as methods of storage and retrieval. Consider that 77% of all books printed in Europe prior to 1501 were written in Latin. The printing press changed the business of book publishing, shifting the aim to publish works written to be understood by the greatest number of people. This turned local dialects into national tongues, standardizing Europe’s written languages.

The same way print encouraged the standardization of language, it also gave rise to scientific methodologies. The printing press played a huge role in the Scientific Revolution, making it easier to exchange ideas and discoveries between thinkers across geographies and times. But the influx of scientific publications made it harder to figure out which were credible academic studies and which weren’t. The solution was to have formal committees evaluate any new work. Successful submission tended to follow a writing pattern associated with a level of academic status. The resultant format, the schedule of periodic publications in journals, and the status around academia have carried into the 21st century.

The Great Library of Alexandria. Image: Guillaume Deprez

Perhaps the most obvious tools designed to make sense of all the written text that’s accumulated are libraries and encyclopedias. The Great Library of Alexandria was built around 300 BC and it’s supposedly the oldest library in existence. King Ptolemy dreamed of it to hold copies of all the world’s written works. The library held mainly papyrus scrolls, stored in pigeon holes with the titles written on wooden tags. Works were categorized into three major topics and kept in separate rooms. Within each topic, scrolls were organized alphabetically by the first name of the author — an innovation at the time. Following the printing press, libraries became a public resource with an important role in education, scholarship, and everyday people’s lives. It found more sophisticated ways of categorizing, labelling, and sorting works. Even within a single book, an encyclopedia, there was a need for alphabetical arrangement in place of the previous methodical form which ordered by subject, as well as improved methods of indexing information.

This is all to say, issues we see as endemic of today’s technologies have existed all throughout history, as early as writing was conceived. The pursuit of better design and improved solutions for wrangling information have been a continual endeavour.

Digital Age

Different perhaps, with the rise of information technology, is that we’re having to question how we define “knowledge” and what among the sea of seemingly unlimited information, we want to capture and hold our attention. As information search-related costs decrease and individual tools adopt evermore sophisticated methods of content delivery, we’re realizing that sometimes, information is parsed and presented in ways that aren’t always to our benefit.

Knowledge is replacing tangible assets and the outputs from “knowledge work” drive economic growth. Sociologist Manuel Castells suggests that knowledge is no longer something produced by human thought and later codified in disciplines, or something that can be defined, stored, and measured. Rather, it’s evolved to be more like energy, something produced collaboratively, and something developed to be replaced, not stored away.

With all the world’s factual information available to us at our fingertips, the internet has replaced our brain as a storer for semantic memory. The argument in support of this trend is that it frees up our brains for more ambitious thinking. Yet, when we consider what types of content dominate our attention in our everyday lives, it’s hard not to worry that the internet is changing our cognition, for the worse.

By taking a historical view and appreciating how unprecient we tend to be, how profound the follow-on effects of the things we create can be, and how we’ve managed to get this far despite it all — this post is but a gentle reminder to be mindful of the technology around you. Especially the ones that you get so used to seeing every day, you don’t even notice.

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