When writing was first invented in ancient Sumer, the written word had a mystical quality to it. The Sumerians understood writing was a gift from the gods. The permanence of writing gave writers a kind of immortality. Their bodies might die, but their words would live on.
Granted, this quasi-divine power emerged from more humble origins. The cuneiform writing system came from an earlier pictographic system that, in turn, developed from a tool created for accounting purposes: clay tokens. People used these clay tokens to record information about their agricultural goods; over time, the Sumerians elaborated on these early signs to invent a written system capable of expressing the complexities of oral communication.
The quest for immutability spans millennia. People have been trying to make their work permanent for thousands of years.
Cuneiform writing wasn’t immutable in the same way blockchains are, but the medium lent itself to permanence. To write in cuneiform, scribes would take a wedge-shaped stylus and press it into wet clay that was then dried or baked until it was hard. This made the text durable, unlike later writing that used ink on papyrus, which was much more susceptible to decay. Cuneiform tablets could be broken, but many of them have survived over thousands of years because attempts to destroy cuneiform have to be very deliberate. If a city was sacked and burned, the fire did little to damage the library of cuneiform tablets because the clay had already been kiln-fired. And, as with any writing in the pre-printing press and pre-digital age, replication of a text could only take place by hand.
In writing, the Sumerians saw the power of immortality: You could say something without your body being physically present. People could send messages over long distances (including time), with the text as intermediary.
Writing is thought externalized, the body walking away from itself.
In an ironic twist, however, the oldest known texts in the world remained in obscurity until the nineteenth century when archaeologists started to dig for evidence of ancient civilizations. Unlike Greek myths, which have been passed on since antiquity because the Greek language spread and continued to function as a spoken language, stories like the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh died along with the civilizations that birthed them. For millennia, no one knew these quasi-immutable blocks of text existed, and even when they were unearthed, it took some time to decipher the unknown languages written in cuneiform script.
So much for immortality. Even immutability needs an audience. The power of text is not just in the writers, but in the readers. Words draw their power from the act of communication. You can’t achieve immortality without flesh-and-blood humans to use what you’ve invented. Like cuneiform, blockchains lose their power apart from communal use. We may be able to separate text from the individual physical body, but without human bodies on the other side of the text, the text is dead.
Plato saw a danger in this separation between words and body. In the Phaedrus, Plato presents an imaginary dialogue between the Egyptian god Thoth and Egyptian king Thamus. Thoth tells the king that the invention of writing is an “elixir of memory” that will make the people wise.
But Thamus disagrees. He says that writing will not be an elixir of memory but will, instead, produce forgetfulness because people will not practice their memory.
Externalizing thought by writing creates the danger that the mind will forget. The exterior thought becomes permanent, safely on paper, while our minds let the words go. The power of the text is simultaneously forgotten and magnified. The text remains, while the speakers turn their minds elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean we will forget, only that it is extremely easy to forget if we don’t cultivate the habit of memory. And it’s easy not only to forget our thoughts, but to forget the flesh-and-blood people who are reading them. Technology – whether it’s blockchains, cuneiform, or the internet – is about human communities, about individual bodies in the context of the ecosystem as a whole.
Today, we can type our thoughts and have them seen on social media instantaneously. I can’t help thinking that in this world where text abounds, we’ve forgotten that our words have power.
Writing and swift delivery of those words around the world are what make global communities possible. At the same time, we might be more careful with our words if we remembered their permanence. Do we think about the impact our words will have before we post a thought on Twitter or reddit? Do we think about how we phrase our criticisms and queries? Do we remember that words have power?
Words shape worlds. We have the power to create and the power to destroy. What we write on social media may not be immortalized on a blockchain, but it’s worth remembering just how powerful our words are.
Rebekah is a copy editor for ETHNews. She holds an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College. Her interests include Mesopotamian history, James Baldwin, and the study of how food intersects with memory, identity, and meaning-making.
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