I tell ya, times sure have changed since I was a boy. Nowadays in our fast-paced Copper Age civilization, people are weaving new textiles, smelting new metals, and finding all kinds of new, exciting ways to make pots. They’re also using new symbolic inscriptions to communicate with each other, and it’s this technology that worries me a bit. Today’s young people will have a permanent record of things they do chiseled out in words for anyone to read.
All I can say is, thank God written language wasn’t around back when I was a teenager!
This might date me quite a bit, but when I was growing up, all we had was the oral tradition. If you did something stupid, like go down to the Euphrates and get wasted with your buds on a jar of wine or deface a statue of the god Enlil to impress a girl, it wasn’t inscribed in clay for the whole world to see. Sure, your actions might get you flogged with an oxtail or exiled by the village patriarch, but after a few weeks of gossip, everyone moved on and forgot about it.
With the invention of cuneiform, however, a mistake from your past can come back to haunt you at any time. Anyone can make a record of your deeds, and in plain Sumerian, no less! Look, I probably said some dumb stuff about our sacred ancestors or whatever back when I was young. But no one wrote it down on a clay tablet, which then got put in a kiln and baked until it was hard as a rock, ensuring my words would be around for the rest of my life. Today, regrettable remarks you make as a kid can be dug up years later. And then boom—your career as a high priest is over.
And don’t even get me started on how written language has contributed to bullying. When I was 14, I had a wispy little mustache, a chubby gut hanging over my goatskin skirt, and no friends. I got bullied a lot. But unlike my neighbor’s kid, at least I had the luxury of not having to read— in huge pictographs someone scraped into the mud bricks of my home—that I was a “lazy cupbearer” who should be “sold into slavery.”
Some will claim using these symbols to record human knowledge is a good thing, but I’m concerned we’re turning into a society that has forgotten how to talk face-to-face. If you don’t believe me, just head down to the marketplace. The vendors, the shepherds—hell, even the slaves are sitting in silence, mindlessly pressing their reed styluses into their tablets. Either that or they’re staring intently at all the fish, stalks of wheat, suns, drinking pots, and donkey heads someone else scratched on there.
What ever happened to just getting together with a group of friends, slitting the throat of a sheep on the altar of Ishtar, and participating in a decadent orgiastic rite that could go on for weeks?
I recently turned 23, and perhaps I’m getting nostalgic in my middle age, but I miss the days when people didn’t turn to their tablets every time they had a question about grain prices, astronomical events, or which deities are owed which offerings. There was a time when, if you needed answers, you could either listen to the tribal elders sing about the creation of the earth or visit the local temple to have a priest talk to the gods on your behalf. That’s just the way it was.
It’s sad to watch as children begin reading and writing at younger and younger ages. My heart sank the other day when I saw a toddler gaping at cuneiform etchings. But like it or not, written language is here to stay. My own children use it now, and the advice I offer them is simple: Unless you’re comfortable having something stay out there forever where people can read it, don’t carve it into stone.
They roll their eyes at me the way I did at my own father when he used to tell me that staring at all those cave paintings was rotting my brain. Hey, I get it, okay? But I genuinely worry that conveying our words through symbols is a step too far. For example, what if a powerful person, like our city-state’s priest-king, were to use this technology to write things that aren’t even true? What would happen then?
Sometimes, I wonder if we won’t destroy ourselves before we get to the Bronze Age.