Welcome to the third lecture on “History of Writing”. I’d like to point out, as mandatory by law, that this history, as with all other histories taught in your school, is disputed in a federal court and may be deemed incorrect at a later date, at which point the syllabus will change. Until then, we are teaching the less popular version of the topic, as dictated by our school’s charter.
Now, to begin the lesson, let’s do a quick recap of what we have learnt in the last two lectures. We began with the idea that writing things down would make them available to more people and preserve knowledge across time. This part, as we discussed, is not disputed.
Then, we saw a presentation on the idea of a universal language. We understood that even though individuality is considered important, the world had settled into the idea that English would be the universal language towards the end of the twenty-first century. We understand that this is disputed by scholars of the day who believe that English was not actually universally accepted but quite simply the de facto language because of the cultural and economic might of a few countries, which, since they no longer exist, can neither prove nor disprove this specific argument in any comprehensive manner.
Today, let’s talk about the Book. Now, please understand that I’m not talking about a specific book, but the Book in general. Since most of you do not know what that is, let me pull up the Wikipedia entry for it.
“A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf, and each side of a leaf is called a page.”
Now, who can tell me what they understood from this? Yes, Tomlin, what’s your take on this definition?
Tomlin – I think it’s some kind of a primitive information repository, but I’m not sure how something like that would work.
Very good Tomlin! Yes, books were information repositories that were organized as chapters. Sometimes, there was so much information that it had to be put into a series of books! Yes, Supriya, you have a question?
Supriya – Yes Ma’am, I want to ask how can they put information on something so flat?
A wonderful question Supriya! People nowadays don’t understand how knowledge can be put on something as basic as paper. Let’s do an exercise. If you remember, I showed you all a piece of paper when we went to the museum last month. You’ll recall that there was text on that paper, real words. There was also an image on it.
I want you all to consider information as we know it today and try to think about how that information would be represented on paper during that period of time.
Let’s begin with a simple example. We all know that the best way to capture someone’s speech is to make a 3D replica of it. How do you think humans in the twentieth century captured speech? Yes, Supriya?
Supriya – I have read that they used to takes things called notes, on paper. They would quickly write what people were saying and then save it someplace safe to recall later.
Very good Supriya! But since you’re familiar with the concepts, I don’t think you should be answering any more questions on the topic. No need to frown, you know it’s the best way to involve everybody.
Next question. In our 3D replicas, we often include, in heavy detail, how people emote their speech. We have records of inflection, pronunciation, emotion, body and eye language and many times, environment. How do you think early man did it? Let’s take it to someone other than the front row. Yes, Mary, what’s your take on this?
Mary – Well, they’d have to somehow copy the 3D model and keep changing the emotion.
Close, but not quite. You see, in written language, there is a process to capture emotion. Words expressing emotions such as anger, relief, hatred, and peacefulness were used to write about emotions. Similarly, surroundings were described in great detail. This is one of the reasons why books were actually so big in size. They had to capture a lot more information in order to properly capture the essence of the scene being described.
Let’s change gears and imagine how they would have described something non-human, like a stone or a DNA sequence. Nowadays, if you want to see a stone, the replicator just builds one for you. If you want to study a DNA sequence, you can ask the replicator to create a model for you and you can play with it live, to create your own DNA sequence. How do you think mankind stored that kind of information? Let’s hear from, you, Ching? Ching, I don’t care if you don’t have an answer, I want you to try.
Ching – I dunno. Maybe they tore off some pages and kept a stone there?
No need to laugh class. Ching is not wrong. No one is. But the human race quickly realized that ideas such as putting a piece of stone in books could only work as a novelty and were not practical. Instead, they used to draw elaborate pictures of the item. Sometimes, they’d describe the color, feel and effect of the object in question in great detail and sometimes, they’d just include a picture of the thing and move on. Yes, Maya, do you have a question?
Maya – But Ma’am, how can they draw a rock on a paper and how can they play with a DNA structure on paper? You told us that paper is non-interactive, unlike our 3D models.
You see, Maya, there is an entire art dedicated to drawing 3D shapes on a 2D plane. It may seem ridiculous to you, but some of their greatest achievements were based on that. From the early prototypes of fuel propelled vehicles, which they called ‘space craft’, to large representations of landscapes, everything 3D was represented in 2D using various techniques such as using darker colors for depth perception and light source inference, using layers of color to give the sense of three-dimensional space, using specific colors to represent specific things, such as red for anger, blue for sadness and green for happiness and prosperity. Now, you may all laugh, but this is how it all worked.
Who here remembers that museum exhibit called a painting? It was some lady sitting in an elaborate costume, with a slight smile. Good to see all these hands up! Now, we may not know why she was painted. Was she some politicians wife, or was she the artist’s representation of an angel, but we can study the painting, only half of which remains now, and see that the smile is actually affected by the way it has been painted. We can also see that the background has been shown to be smaller from her own size, so as to represent that it is far from her. These ideas may seem primitive to us all, but these were the best means they had to represent such notions.
Who here has been to MOMA? You realize why the Museum of Modern Art had to be made on half the side of the moon, right? They needed room to let artists display their work. The famous “Events Of Futures Past” by Giraldo Ganeshan is a theater of five thousand replicas of humans at war with five thousand Centauri. Now, we know that we’re at peace with the civilizations of other star systems, but Ganeshan’s representation is an idea, that something like this could happen. Of course, to accurately represent the scene, Ganeshan had to take up half of MOMA’s space in order to present the installation. You can walk through the model and watch as each warrior attacks one from the other side in a battle that would not even be technologically feasible anymore – we no longer have weapons that we can hold in our hands.
Imagine if, instead of taking all that space, Ganeshan would just have written a book, with detailed descriptions of the battle. It would have taken considerably less space. It would have meant that humans would have to use a very infrequently used faculty now, namely, imagination, but it would have done the job.
Now, getting back to the topic at hand. Maya, how do you think people who drew the DNA structure on paper interacted with it?
Maya – With their imagination, I guess.
Maya – But how? It’s so hard to imagine this stuff! And reading is so difficult! Why not just call a 3D model of it and let the comp process it for you?
You must realize that there was very little that comps could do back then. In fact, there was a time when comps didn’t even exist! Nowadays, all you have to do to start studying is to press a button on the memlets around your necks. But back then, knowledge was slowly being transformed from paper to comps and comps didn’t have the capabilities needed for this kind of work. In fact, for a long time, people depended on screens to display information to them!
Puline – What? So you’re saying that they moved from 2D paper to 2D screens? Lame!
Decorum Puline. But you’re right. Our ancestors weren’t the brightest bunch. It didn’t occur to them that the upgrade from paper would be something that takes them into a third dimension. Instead, they chose to make it the same 2D structure, but put it on comps and then on what they called the Internet, which is, in a way, the great-great-great grandfather of the psynet.
That brings me to the last question. How do you think peeps took books from one place to another? How about we get an answer out of Anhel. We’ve barely heard a sound out of you today.
Anhel – yeah, I’m a little distracted today.
Is there something you’d like to share with us today?
Anhel – No, no. Anyways, what was the question?
How do you think peeps carried books around?
Anhel – I don’t know. Did they put them on some sort of fuel powered hovers like we use at home?
Haha! No. I like your imagination, but the thing is, hovers came into existence only about five hundred years ago. What they did was that they had things called bags. If you ever observe the food delivery at home, you’ll notice that individual types of foods are packaged in custom-built air silos. Early mankind, however, had to create containers out of paper or cloth or something that they called ‘plastic’ and use those to store and transport goods, including books. Imagine you all, coming to school, with bags hanging over your shoulders, with books inside them!
Well, that’s all for today’s lecture. Have fun at home and don’t forget next week’s timings because they’re a little different. Good day!
Author’s Note – I’d like to thank my friends Ronnie and Rahul for editing this post. They both provided invaluable editorial feedback and are really cool people. I’d recommend you follow them on twitter, because, apparently, that’s a thing to do.