Knowledge - Writing

Why is writing so important to everything else?

In our own time we’ve become used to a very high rate of change, and it’s been going on so long we think of it as normal. Think of everything you can do with your smart phone, and then remind yourself that Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone in 2007. The smartphone is so powerful, so ubiquitous to everything we do in the modern world, it’s difficult for many people to imagine living without it. Yet just twelve years ago, it didn’t exist.

Let’s go back in time a little, and look at another amazing life changing tool, the stone hand axe. That’s quite a jump, but the stone hand axe was if anything, even more important to people’s lives back then, as the smart phone is to us today, so it’s not such a daft comparison as it might at first appear.

There are obviously many differences between a smart phone and a stone hand axe, but the one I want to talk about here is longevity. The average smartphone lasts about a year before the next model pops up from the same manufacturer, sometimes less. The longest you’re likely to be able to use the smart phone safely, is about five years, after which its operating system ceases to be updateable, and it’s no longer secure. The stone hand axe on the other hand, kept pretty much the same small number of designs for around 1,500,000 years… And it remained useful throughout that entire time.

So why didn’t it change? Were our ancestors really, really dumb, unimaginative morons?

Hardly. The more we learn about our distant ancestors, the more we have to change our minds away from the vision of a bunch of grunting cave dwellers barely able to string two thoughts together, to people just as capable of sophisticated thought as ourselves. But, if that’s true, why did they hang on to such a primitive tool for so long before they moved onto metal ones?

There are three key reasons, one of which is why I’m bringing this up in the first place. Reason one is that a stone hand axe is an incredibly useful tool, even today. You can get a magnificently sharp edge, literally razor sharp, and the thing is a lot more resilient than you’d think. The second reason is that the raw material to make them is all over the place, and you can start working on it as soon as you find a piece of suitable stone. You don’t have to smelt it the way you do metal. The third reason has nothing to do with the qualities of the stone hand axe at all. It’s about communication.

For almost all of the period we’re talking about, humans lived in small groups, travelling around the place, bumping into other groups from time to time, but generally keeping to their small bands.

We obviously don’t know how sophisticated their interpersonal communications were, but it’s safe to assume it was somewhere between chimpanzees and ourselves. In other words, they were perfectly capable of transmitting ideas between themselves.

Let’s follow an imaginary band, where our hero Mossyhead has a flash of inspiration. He wakes up one morning, and spots a branch lying on the edge of the fire. It’s been close enough to become discoloured on one end, but not so close that it has actually burned.

Intrigued by this, Mossyhead picks up the branch, admires the colour for a moment, and then absentmindedly taps the cooked end against one of the stones around the fire.

It sounds different to normal.

Puzzled, he takes a closer look, this time tapping and scraping it with his fingers. It seems harder, tougher than a normal branch.

He reaches across his bedding and grabs his spear. He fondles its point, and scratches the wood. It’s a lot softer than the burnt stick. “I wonder…” he thinks to himself. And being a smart sort of fellow, he plays around over the next few evenings, putting sticks in different parts of the fire until he can replicate the same hardness. Then, he makes a couple of spears to take on the next hunt. Boffo success!

The tribe is thrilled, and to make sure they don’t lose the idea, Mossyhead teaches the secret to Dirtyfeet and Bonyfingers. Within a week however, Dirtyfeet gets himself killed in a hunt, and Bonyfingers drowns after he slips on a rock while crossing a river.

Mossyhead settles down to teach another pair of youngsters, but on the other side of the fire, Magicthoughts the cook, has accidentally collected a poisonous mushroom along with the usual ones, and mixes it into the tribe’s dinner. Within two days everyone in the tribe is dead, and so is the idea.

Eventually, someone in another tribe makes the same discovery, but unless they share that idea with another tribe, who shares it with another, and another, and another, the idea is just as vulnerable as before. It needs to enter a large enough number of heads, spread over a wide enough geographic area before it’s future is reasonably secure. And even then, a major catastrophe such as the seismic event that knocked out the Minoan civilisation, could still wipe it out.

The key discovery that changed all that, was writing. When you can write something down, it has the ability to survive the writer, provided that other people still alive can read it.

Equally important, the writing can be copied, and the copies can be sent far and wide, finally spreading the idea out wide enough that it can survive almost anything.

But it’s slow, and it’s expensive. Writing’s generally reserved for important things like how many pots of corn you have stored in the communal granary, or how much tax someone owes to the chief, or diplomatic communiques with the thug that rules the clan next door, and of course, religious texts. Anything else is a bonus.

Progress was slow but steady, provided there was a sufficiently well organised economy and political structure to afford the scribes, but when the Roman empire collapsed, the only Europeans left that could afford to keep writing were the monasteries. That kept the ability to write trickling along just enough to keep things ticking over.

With a serious lock on that particular type of expertise, the power of the Catholic Church was greatly enhanced, as every monarch in Europe depended on their literary services. They knew pretty much everything that was going on, which was a huge help to their temporal aspirations. They also knew where their duty lay, so Europe’s literary focus was heavily skewed to the religious side of life. Given their priorities, that’s perfectly understandable, but who knows what great ideas popped up in that period, only to vanish because nobody thought them important enough to write down and disseminate?

Things only changed because of Johannes Guttenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany. He didn’t just come up with the idea of printing with moveable type, he actually made it a practical reality. Of course, no fool he, the first things he printed were religious in nature, the Bible, and indulgences. (Time off for good behaviour if you’ve been a naughty person and want to say sorry to the Almighty.) Good for the revenue stream, and it got the Church on side so they didn’t interfere with this wonderful new idea.

Moveable type printing changed everything. There had been printing before, mainly using woodcuts, but if you wanted to duplicate a one hundred page book, you had to carve out, by hand, one hundred different chunks of wood. This took a long time. If you made a mistake you had to throw that whole “page” away and start again. Just as bad, they wore out relatively quickly, so you’d have to do it all again if you wanted to print any more. With moveable type, you set up the letters as you wanted, printed the desired number of pages, then rearranged the letters for the next page and started all over again. It was fast, it was flexible, and most important of all, it was cheap. (Some things never change!)

Within a generation, the new printers had printed and distributed pretty much every book known. Initially, this was simple economics. If you’re a printer, you want people to read, and if you want people to read, you need to give them stuff they actually want to read. Italic script was developed about this time by Aldus Manutius, because he wanted a font that could pack as many words onto a page as possible, to reduce his costs, and make books small enough to be easily carried around.

Interestingly enough, we have exactly the same dynamic to thank for our wonderfully broad selection of classical music. We owe that to the development of the recording industry, and record producers searching for more and more content to sell to their ravenous public. Imagine the world without Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven! Without the early recording industry’s hunger for new stuff to sell, we could have lost the lot…

Anyway, we digress. Another benefit of moveable type printing was that all the definitive works suddenly became available to anyone who could read and had the money to buy the books. That led to two key developments. First of all, you could take “the expert’s” book out into the field and check if what they said was actually correct. Boy, did that shake a few foundations… Secondly, a whole bunch of people suddenly had a load of previously unconnected ideas in their heads and were able to make the links between them. When that happens, you get an ever building cascade of developments as each new idea sparks off a string of others. And as each new idea appeared, it was written down, printed, disseminated, and fed into the next round of ideas.

That led to an ever accelerating rate of change, with new ideas and new technologies changing not just the technologies we used, but the very way we thought about things.

The internet has done exactly the same thing, on steroids. If you think about the technological changes in the last ten years alone, and what they’ve done to society and the way people live, it’s absolutely staggering compared to what went before.

Every single person on the planet now has the ability to disseminate their thoughts and ideas, limited only by their access to the internet, and the degree of freedom their country’s rulers allow them to have. That’s great, but ironically, it’s given us a problem that we’d just about managed to get rid of, the problem of losing stuff you’d really like to keep. The difference this time is why we’re losing stuff.