Writing Was Invented for Pragmatic Reasons

  • the Future Of Coding community tends to romanticize about inventing a new meta-medium, giving everyone agency over computing, allowing people to think new thoughts, etc. - this is often compared to inventing writing or a printing press
    • but, writing seems to have been invented for the most pragmatic reason - for bookkeeping:

      It has been argued that writing in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) grew from a counting system of clay tokens used to record transactions of goods. The goods represented were inferred by the shape of the tokens: spheres, cones and discs stood for measurements of grain, while cylinders stood for livestock. This counting system was used from 7500 BC onwards across the Fertile Crescent, from the Mediterranean coast down to the Persian Gulf.

      Why did humans start writing?

      • writing is one of the most important technical achievements of humanity - allowed for sharing ideas across time and space, gave us a way to look at our own thinking (metacognition), etc. - but it wasn't made with those lofty goals in mind
    • same with printing press, which again was invented for pragmatic, economical reason - not with the goal of turning everyone into a scholar
  • it's easy to extrapolate from the above and conclude that we should just focus on pragmatic technological improvements and maybe once in a while we strike gold - but also it's important to keep in mind that both advancements happened before science existed - maybe we're now ready to think these (more lofty) thoughts?
  • as always, Alan Kay has something to say about this:

    I don't think you can start with "text" or "programming" and get very far. I think it's always better to have something important and big you want to do better with - eventually this provides clues to various kinds of media (including "languages") that need to be invented to help. This is what people miss. McCarthy wasn't trying to invent Lisp, he was trying to create ways to make an "Advice Taker". Doug wasn't trying to do hypertext, he was trying to synergize human effort for good.

    — Alan Kay

Szymon Kaliski © 2022