On writing: we've been coding for thousands of years
5 min read

On writing: we've been coding for thousands of years

How understanding the history of writing can help free your creativity
On writing: we've been coding for thousands of years

Writing is an amazing feat of human ingenuity, our go-to technology for collecting, handling, altering, and sharing information.

I want to reflect on how writing came to be, what it means to us, and what it does to us. How it moved from a simple system of tokens to a technology that marries ideas between thinkers thousands of years apart or is able to communicate emotions to someone on the other side of the world.

Everyone is a Writer

We need writing like we need the land beneath our feet. It is critical and most of us do it every day, whether it be through text messages, social media posts, or the constant sending of emails. Writing is responsible for the coding of almost every piece of technology we rely on to perform most of these daily feats . Existence without it is impossible.

But when put into a more formal context than the daily communication required through writing, people often say to themselves 'I'm not good at writing', which seems strange considering most people have gigabytes of text saved on WhatsApp.

Down the line, the difference comes from where our writing travels and how it connects with others.

The ability to read and write words is easy to take for granted. Writing is ever-present and since we were young we've been able to string signs and symbols together to derive meanings and ways of communicating with and understanding the world.

At the same time, it's also a great source of stress and anxiety for many of us. Grammar rules, academic styles and systems, and fear of 'looking stupid' stifle many of us. But it needn't be that way and we'll see shortly how.

My key message is this: many of the rules don't matter. What matters is being understood.

Complicated rules paralyze people. Simple rules empower people."
- James Clear

The Evolution of Writing

The origins of one influential script which I'll focus on today – the Mesopotamian cuneiform - isn't particularly romantic. The creation of writing owes itself in big part to accounting and bureaucracy, two of my least favourite things.

Small clay counters were first used around 8000 BC to keep track of goods being traded in Mesopotamia. These 3D shapes were the first system of signs to transmit an agreed meaning, and promise, between parties, no matter the language or location.

The next major shift came 5000 years later with the Mesopotamian creation of phonetic signs: marks that represented spoken language. Suddenly 'writing' shifted us from oral culture to visual culture, and as prominent communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan puts it: 'given an eye for an ear.'

However, this new way of communicating was still focused on the bureaucratic world. Piles of scriptures and tablets dealing in the trade of goods and accounting tables - the Excel spreadsheets of the Mesopotamian Empire.

From then to now, when did artists and hackers get their hands on this new piece of technology?

Initially, it was the funeral directors of the elite who got there first, using syntax on funerary texts to promise eternal life to the deceased. These early syllabic texts of around 400 signs were then used to write royal inscriptions and religious texts.

Then, in 1500 BC in present-day Lebanon, something monumental happened: an alphabet of 22 letters was created, offering almost unlimited options for transcribing speech.

This alphabet spread to neighboring countries and was gradually perfected by the Greeks with the addition of five letters for vowels. This formed the basis of many alphabets of the world including Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew, and thus, McLuhan states, “humans began painting pictures with their minds.”

From my brain to yours

Writing builds a cognitive universe, linking our inner workings to those around us, dead and alive, today and tomorrow. This cultural invention is working and impacting our brains in amazing ways.

Writing helps to not only understand and share ideas about the world around us, but also to help the brain know itself. This introspection allows deeper understanding of our own views and beliefs.

Simply put, writing is one of the healthiest mental exercises you could undertake.

How human endeavor is codified into language is so common it is almost unseen. Metaphors are a great example. They are used to share and expand our knowledge: efficient little vessels in storytelling. They are so hardwired and pervasive you probably don't notice that they're all around us. Have a look at today’s New York Times front page and highlight each metaphor- you'll be surprised how many there are.

The act of writing is used to constantly shape thought, to plant emotions, ideas, and views into the reader - linking them to the real world around them. The act of telling a story is one of the most powerful ways to effect change imaginable.

Writing gives you the ultimate power to influence and connect with humanity. With a powerful story you can activate people's brains and make them feel like they are experiencing what you are sharing.

The limits

Our brains become desensitized to repetition. Repeated phrases or metaphors lose their power over time because our brains begin to see the words without the meaning behind them. These once-powerful turns of phrase evolve into clichés.

Finding new creative ways to evoke emotions and senses is a challenge, and for many writing can have its limits of expressing what we want to express.

"A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Writing can hold us captive, trapped in a particular frame of reference dictated by our own boundaries. It might be that we can't summon the words that reflect our thinking. Our perceived boundaries could be anything from a fear of writing after being scarred from school exams, a limited vocabulary, or an inability to lay out a cohesive argument.

But many of these boundaries are simply that: perceptions, not reality. These perceptions can be broken down and replaced with confidence and empowerment, and we have an amazing number of tools at our disposal today to do just that.

We have seen how and why writing developed. It is a technology created to aid our communication, a tool to connect and unite us. So why feel bound by rules?

Writing today is changing because of the constant bombardment of stimuli we are exposed to. On the one side we are writing more than ever thanks to our email and our phones, and writing in a way closer to how we speak.

The internet is also bringing back the audio-oral experience. Instagram and Tik Tok are mixing forms.

If you consider yourself a 'non-writer' this should give you heart.

It means to 'write' no longer has to mean solely writing marks to convey meaning. It can mean weaving those marks with images and icons, or even sounds and signs. Your canvas is as big as your imagination.

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