Ancient Tech

I feel like scraping Roman numerals on the wall of my cave with a sharp rock. One for each day I have to spend without my laptop. I’ve been working on this blog, born in this very cabin in which I sit, for six years now. With some exceptions, I’ve posted something new (and, I hope, thoughtful) every day. Even holidays and weekends. Most of those posts have been written on the deceased laptop that’s sitting in my carryon, electronic carrion. This has caused me to stop and consider that the most lasting words—the ones we all quote or at least recognize—tend to come from a far older form of communication technology: the pen and paper. Of course, there are older technologies yet. The Sumerians figured out that clay of the right consistency keeps marks made by a pointed reed pressed into it while it was still damp. Cuneiform writing lasted for millennia as the most advanced technology humanity had devised. The results, however, were bulky, heavy, and fragile. Few could learn the technique. It was an elite skill.

Nobody quotes the Sumerians anymore. Well, maybe the occasional quip from Gilgamesh will work its way to memory, but not much else readily does. The Bible, perhaps the most quoted book of all time, at least in western culture, wasn’t written on clay. By the time the earliest books of the Bible came along, scrolls had been developed. Probably suggesting itself from the way that papyrus naturally rolled up, this early form of paper—indeed, the word “papyrus” gives us our word “paper”—could be marked up with styluses or brushes and ink. Prepared animal skills, or parchment, sometimes called vellum, could also be used, but they were expensive. Pens at this period were sharpened objects dipped into ink, but the most famous words, well, penned by humankind were passed down in that medium. Copied, recopied, memorized. Electricity hadn’t even been discovered yet.

  

Printing presses and their children—typewriters and the consequent qwerty—have led the way since they were invented. Until, however, the 1980s at least, professors would accept only the old fashioned manuscript for papers. Indeed, the medium had given its name to the end result. We still write academic papers, although they are more often published and read electronically. So here I find myself in a cabin on a beautiful lake, surrounded by nature, worried about a communication device that can speak with the stars. There may not be workable clay here—the soil is far too sandy and I don’t have the patience to look up how to make clay on my phone—but there is paper. Pens are scattered everywhere. I am at home in the matrix that has given us the great ideas of humankind.

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