- "All that I have written seems like straw to me."
- — Thomas Aquinas, Christian theologian and mystic, to Reginald of Piperno
Quick reference cardEdit
The ability to share resources and labour was one of the keys to the success of the human species to propgate itself and ensure its survival. Of these, one of the greatest resources that could be passed on was knowledge.
Oral traditions were one of the ways in which information regarding complex cultural concepts could be passed down in prehistoric times, but the ability of humans to pass down information whilst preserving its integrity and its context was extremely problematic as it was dependent solely on word of mouth and memory. Should any of the custodians of memorised knowledge were to die or have their mental capacities degraded, the information they memorised would be compromised or completely lost.
The ability to use symbols to represent this information thus proved to be a massive breakthrough for mankind. First emerging possibly in the form of cave art and graffitti to depict events and ideas, the images were probably eventually simplified down into stylised pictographs. Much later, the Phoenicians of the 6th century Levant created a new form of script in which the pictographs no longer depicted tangible objects, but instead depicted sounds.
How effective has writing been with this regard to transmitting information? let us consider the case for ancient Egypt. Thanks to the efforts of Jean-François Champollion, a French orientalist, we are now able to decode and read information that was carved out by the ancient Egyptians more than two millenia before our time, even though the original creators of the messages left behind on us on obelisks, temple walls and tombs have long since disappeared from living memory.
The ability of mankind to record and present information in a medium which was independent of human physical capacity and far less malleable than human memory meant that it was now easier to record more information with greater accuracy and integrity, and also easier to transmit that knowledge without the need of an elder or bard with questionable capability or even motive. Being able to record information also meant that mankind could now begin exploring and expressing ideas far more complex than simple elementary concepts such as physical objects.