the write stuff
How did writing change civilization?
Once it was invented, writing became a centerpiece of the ruling class and theocracy. Records of who produced what, who owed what to whom, quickly became essential to rulership.

write like an egyptianBecause only a tiny minority learned to read and write, they quickly entered the elite. Writers -- called scribes -- gained access to privy secrets of common people and king alike.

In modern terms (how times have changed!) scribbling was a good gig: According to an ancient Egyptian text called the Instruction of Khety, "The goddess of abundance was carved on the scribe's shoulder from the day he was born" (see "The British Museum... " P. 122, in the bibliography).

In fact, writing was so important that >Pharaoh Tutankhamen (about 1336-1327 BC) even included writing equipment among the necessities he had with him for the afterlife."

All sweetness and light?
Sumerologist Robert Englund thinks writing may have had an ossifying effect on Sumerian society in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. "Many people thought in the early stages of analysis that writing would be the wings that enabled imaginative things, but writing might have had a stiffening effect" by facilitating central control of society and the expansion of empires.

Always bring a sharp no. 2 pencil

A portion of the papyrus of Ani from the Egyptian new kingdom, around 1200 BC. This is the most elaborate of the surviving Egyptian "Books of the Dead," which were a collection of spells to enhance the well-being of the deceased with whom the papyrus was buried.
Courtesy Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While writing did enable the spread of knowledge -- imagine the Britannica without the alphabet! -- the forced imposition of languages and writing "had an intellectual-imperialistic effect that imposed certain ways of recording, and therefore even of thinking, on existing societies," Englund says.

In places where the sun and the moon provided the only calendars, the arrival of central administration and time-keeping could shake up daily life and world view alike. "It's almost frightening how destructive this could be for pristine cultures," Englund says. (The Why Files talked time.)

Englund adds that broadcast technologies seem to be having a similar standardizing effect today. "The way we speak -- we try to mimic Walter Cronkite, sound more and more like Nebraska, because they are the conventional representations of the spoken word in American English."

In other words, like most powerful technologies, writing is a sword with two edges. No writing, and no Moby Dick. No writing, and no impenetrable income tax instructions, or manuals on making home-made bombs.

Having reached a somber note, let's conclude our examination of the roots of writing with this Egyptian inscription, a Jeremiad before its time:

The land falls apart, has become a wasteland to me;
Made as the [desert].
Truth has been cast aside,
and evil placed within the council;
the gods' plans are disturbed and neglected,
The land is in distress.
Journey to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; in print and on the web!

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