Apr 14, 2014

Calculation to communication

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY 2.5
Do you remember when mobile phones were actually used as telephones? That is, people put them next to their heads and used them to talk to other people at a distance. But now, of course, your mobile phone (unless you have a very very cheap model) does a lot of other things as well. Phones are used as cameras, maps, notebooks, recipe collections, timekeeping devices, compasses, flashlights, mirrors, radios and audio players, reading platforms, organisers, entertainment centres, tourist guides . . . At some point, a significant transition took place when a tool designed for one use (real-time voice transmission over distance) acquired other uses. These shifts in technology use can be deeply transformative, not only affecting the physical design of the technology so used but also the social practices related to that technology. However, shifts in technology use are often overlooked when we focus simply on ‘inventions’ – the physical devices themselves – without considering what people actually do with them.

Take two very important shifts in technology use, one that occurred about five millennia ago and another that took place in the last century. The earliest uses of writing appear to have been in accounting systems: that is, writing was first used for calculation and bureaucratic record-keeping. An immensely important shift took place when writing began to be used for communication – that is, people started using it to encode language. So significant was this innovation that many historians of writing do not even consider the encoding of other forms of information to be ‘true’ writing, but rather a form of proto-writing. Much more recently, a major shift in computing technology in the 20th century took place when the machines we still call ‘computers’ (note, however, that ‘computers’ were originally human) began to be used not only for calculation but also for communication – an innovation whose potential was increased dramatically with the development of the public internet in the 1970s.

Associated with such shifts in technology use are changes in the physical design of technological devices and in the procedures (such as codes) implemented in those technologies. Also implicated in this kind of change are the social practices and institutions by which users learn the skills necessary to operate the technology. No simplistic model of cause and effect, I suspect, can accurately capture the interrelation of all these elements. As I continue to think about the place of medieval information technologies in this complex history, I am increasingly convinced that the most promising approach to this subject is closer to an approach that may be called ‘the history of reading’ than to a more narrow focus on ‘the history of the book’; in other words, the physical objects we examine when we think about, say, medieval manuscripts are most meaningful and useful to us when we consider how their medieval users imagined and used them. Technology is created and used by human beings; it’s not a product of spontaneous generation. If technological determinism is an illusion, therefore, we have choices about how we use the technologies that we have created. You don’t have to be controlled by your phone if you don’t want to be. (But, ironically, there’s an app for that.)

Yin Liu


Cooper, Jerrold S. ‘Babylonian Beginnings: The Origin of the Cuneiform Writing System in Comparative Perspective.’ In The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, ed. Stephen Houston. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 71-99.

Damerow, Peter. ‘The Origins of Writing as a Problem of Historical Epistemology.’ Invited lecture at the Symposium on the Multiple Origins of Writing: Image, Symbol, and Script, University of Pennsylvania, Center for Ancient Studies, March 26-27, 1999.

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