Intent Has Nothing To Do with It

I already thought that this whole writing thing likely didn’t have its origins in wonderfully performed plays or some divine force prior to reading Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s How Writing Came About even despite my lack of familiarity with much linguistic history theory. Perhaps I’m too distrustful of humanity since I didn’t expect much less of us than to have writing, this beautiful wondrous communication technology responsible for all the art and communications I’ve experienced, have as its origin story a situation where people wanted to more efficiently count goods without having to continue dedicating warehouses to an ever-expanding system of tokens. However, the implications of the argument made by Schmandt-Besserat leave me feeling a sense of unease as a result of some of the factors that led to tokens’ increasingly complex system and the eventual formation of writing. Namely, I couldn’t move beyond the idea that increasing concerns for centralized spaces of redistribution, and therefore taxation to maintain and build new state buildings and infrastructure, largely factored into the evolution of abstract counting and then writing.

According to the archaeological research of Schamndt-Besserat, trade actually played very little into the developing of counting technology. Early on, exchange of goods happened face to face. A person with a sheep met a person with some rice, and they exchanged their goods without any need to measure out the fairness of the transaction against an external standard other than perhaps the work required to nurture the animal or grow the crop. We also learn from the tokens that the creation and exchange of manufactured goods such as perfumes and oil were not what drove tokens’ increased complexity, but rather the state’s taxation of both farmed and manufactured goods requiring that people begin to account for them in order to have on record the transactions they made (Location 1907-1908). And here, I’m going to give these ancient states the benefit of the doubt and believe that they were not acting with any malicious intent in spurring tokens’ greater complexity, but were simply trying to ensure they got the goods necessary for redistribution as well as provisions for state officials working to keep oil lamps on. And how would such malicious intent even be possible since tokens evolved over 700 years? Yet, and a lot of the rest of this is now just conjecture, that increasing need to account for things had to have some impact on the way people conceived of both ownership as well their sense of individuality, and over millennium since has perhaps facilitated the transformation of many languages into communication systems that renders people from one another.

Let me start again with this. Imagine you are a person living in the Neolithic period when tokens were becoming more complex for at least the past five generations since the state has further consolidated, and built that stunning new temple. Your family has been into sheep for the past twenty generations, and your great great grandfather was a luddite right at the time when a whole new range of tokens were trickling in that made counting the sheep more efficient. Your great great grandfather didn’t put much effort into regularly accounting for the sheep with the aid of these more complex tokens. He still thinks the plain ones will suffice despite the recent changes in the amount of sheep he owns. He gifts one here, loses ten to disease, and another four are born, etc. When the state comes to collect taxes on what he owes, his poor accounting results in a considerable portion of his sheep being taken since he has no evidence of his actual numbers.

This story is a major part of the lore in your family as it set back what had been a legacy of amazing sheep-herding. They were really good at it! Since then, accounting for the sheep as well as all other goods owned by your family has become a major task treated with utmost care. These are your sheep. You must ensure the state takes their fair portion, and only that. These are your sheep. If you exchange this sheep for another good that is not sheep, you must get your fair portion. You must learn from the mistakes of your great great grandfather. Your family relies on not repeating this mistake. How would this cause you to now look at your sheep in terms of their exchange value? How would you feel about their worth as you used a single complex token to represent ten of them? Are they different sheep now? Do they mean more?7800430_orig

I won’t pretend that before the growing complexity of tokens and what follows (abstract counting and writing) that humans were benevolent, and willy nilly about getting their fair due, but still though, I’m left curious about how those advancements in technology might have impacted the development of the Neolithic person’s psyche? Not much reaching is required to think of something contemporary analogous to that, but rather than a counting technology potentially changing notions of ownership, the example I’m thinking of is an exchange technology that expedites consumption. Consider shopping through Paypal or Amazon’s 1-click ordering process. Both make it much quicker than it once was to spend money. They minimize the moves required to go from wanting to having even eliminating the seconds of potential doubt that would manifest as you left your computer momentarily to get your credit card (an already withdrawn act). Paypal has made it as such that on websites that support it, you physically sometimes only have to click on two different instances to go from looking at an item to owning it. In my own life, I have found myself going on a site to browse for fun to spending $50 I shouldn’t have. This process happens so reflexively and pleasurably it feels like a good inhale at the summit of a peak.


The expedition of this consumptive process has drastically sped up in one generation, and already changed my own brain. How likely is it that people underwent an even more dramatic transformation as a result of the abstraction of counting that goes beyond greater mathematical efficiency? How can we trust that writing technology does not hold within itself the rhetorical purposes of abstract counting (to count without necessitating concrete entities), furthering the removal from the material and enabling us to more easily ignore the concrete entities symbolized in writing? What role does the development of writing as a technology for recording have on the way humans think of accountability and reality?



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