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Writing

As Mesopotamian society increased in complexity around the 3rd millennium BC, ``Reliable records of accounts could not be kept orally. Writing was born of practical necessity.'' Early written languages were pictogram-based, and served to bridge a communication gap between societies with different spoken languages. Gradually the pictographs led to ideographic representations, which employed written characters to represent abstract ideas. Ideographic writing evolved into analytic writing, which consisted of transitional scripts with symbols added to represent certain sounds. Phonetic writing, (what you are reading right now) originated on the Sinai Peninsula around 1500 BC. This form of writing is the graphical counterpart of speech, and uses an alphabet of characters to represent the phonic elements of language: consonants, syllables, vowels, etc.

Most cultures resisted the idea of literacy--Plato said (I'm assuming he wasn't the one who actually wrote it down) that writing destroys memory and that texts are `inherently contumacious.' Yet the only reason we know Plato existed in the first place is because someone cared to write about him. Early societies with access to writing were proto-literate. In such a culture, people are aware that a system for writing exists, but it is not a common system. Before the advent of printing (explained in the next section of this exam), most literate cultures reached a level of restricted literacy. In this society, only an elite group, such as scribes or monks, know how to write. The system of writing in the restricted literacy society is often used for communication in a foreign language--not the common spoken language.

The invention of writing satisfied the growing need for a technology that could permanently record information, and communicate across time and language barriers. This invention ultimately created more needs--the need for people who were literate, the need for efficient writing tools, the need for a way to share the same written words among many, and among the few who were literate... they needed something to read!

Reading materials evolved from the clay tablet through the papyrus scroll to the codex, which allowed the reader random, rather than sequential access to the information contained within. One of the first social institutions to empower itself with literacy was the church. Monks are responsible for constructing and illustrating many beautiful illuminated manuscripts, such as The Book of Kells during the medieval period. The ability to read the written word of God, and to respond in the same written language must have been quite a privilege at the time. Among those elite who could read and write in cultures of restricted literacy, writing ``...changed the basic form of human memory.''


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Next: Printing Up: Information in Society Previous: Introduction

sean dreilinger

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