The Sands of Time: Part IV

Sands of Time Part I, Part II, Part III

Part IV in our Sands of Time series centers on the history of paper, and its significant role as an informational medium.

There's debate amongst researchers over when the first languages were spoken, and the estimates range from 50,000 years ago to 2 million years ago. It's a wide range, but exact dating is less relevant than the sheer importance of the stepwise increase in bandwidth between individuals. Verbal communication gave us the new tools required to pass along critical information like hunting strategy, habitable locations, and weather, to other collaborating humans.

It led to a new age of flourishing for our species that was previously impossible without the technology of language.

But the limitation of spoken language is that it's real-time and has no memory external to human neurons. If someone isn't in your tent at the same time as you, then the only way one of their ideas can be imparted on you is if it's passed down by a "middle man" - someone else who has heard the idea, and who is now recalling it from their brain's memory in your tent.

We worked with this spoken technology as best as we could, ushering in an era of rich oral traditions that involved passing stories down from generation to generation. This chain of oral histories is how we came to consensus on what our tribes' identities were. And this, in turn, permitted cultures to become rich and to flourish.

However, a new invention would come along and totally change the way we communicated.

The importance of paper on our unending lineage of knowledge is almost impossible to overstate. Before paper, various writing materials such as clay, papyrus, wood, slate, animal skins, and wax tablets were used. The Romans are famous for writing on wax tablets with their stylus as a writing utensil. It wasn't until the Han Chinese first thought up the idea of paper in 20 A.D., and subsequently perfected it 800 years later, that an end-state efficient material was available for common use by everyday people.

The availability of paper saved immense time and opened up the written languages to commoners for the first time. In contrast to paper's ease of use, Egyptian hieroglyphs had to be carved masterfully into stone, which provided for a task that required minimal editing, and therefore high up front costs. This meant time.

The Romans had a less burdensome of written communication, written in wax, into which they could painstakingly carve messages. The downside of this medium was that instead of upfront time investment like the Egyptian's stone carvings, the Romans' wax tablets were only two pages, and were erased after being filled in order to accommodate the next bits of writing. This technology lent itself much more to jotting down quick notes and ideas rather than long form thought preservation. It was akin to the first widely-used dry erase boards/chalk boards for personal use. Ephemeral.

In 800 A.D., the Han Chinese solved this problem. They invented a way to get the best of both worlds. Not only could any lay person have access to writing something down without needing to spend a career honing the craft of carving, but the resulting information would also be preserved in any length they'd like.

It would take another three hundred years for the invention to spread into Europe, the perfect time to coincide with nascent engineering inventions within the region at the time. But the reader might be surprised to learn that wood-based paper didn't come along until as late as the 19th century.

True economies of scale were achieved to bring paper prices down once and for all when the steam engine was applied to paper mills, easily turning wood pulp into paper fibers.

In the same way that paper allowed humans to store ideas in a lasting way, IOTA and distributed ledgers are a similar "paper" on which value can be saved over time. Immutable ledgers let one account send a transaction to another account, while storing the results of that transaction across points in time and space.

This innovation of immutable value storage is surprisingly new, despite the long history of clunky alternatives. Precious metals are among the first group of good that comes to mind when thinking about "storage of value". However, these are not nearly as divisible, verifiable, and transportable as currency that lives on distributed ledgers.

IOTA is to precious metals and 20th century accounting as to paper and writing were to cave paintings. The future is bright with such an innovation.

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