The Axemaker’s Gift

I recently finished The Axemaker’s Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein. The book outlines key innovations throughout human history that significantly altered the course of our history. The journey is fascinating and I’d highly recommend the book.

Two of the innovations and their repercussions were so interesting to me, that I wanted to call them out.

  • The alphabet. Not written language in the abstract mind you, but the alphabet specifically. The use of letters representing individual sounds that could be rearranged and mapped easily to oral language was in sharp contrast to hieroglyphics and other pictorial languages that came before. The alphabet began the slow process of moving power from the elite (rulers and their scholars) to a still small, but larger, portion of the population. It also allowed for the development of formalized logic and analysis as instead of trying to retain the details of what one was thinking about inside your head, you could now write them down — essentially using the written word as an extension to your thought process.
  • Gutenberg’s printing press. It’s no surprise this one was close to my heart (it’s also the reason I bought the book to begin with). The use of movable metal type for the quick reproduction of written material is fairly straightforward, although still awe-inspiring to me as to its impact. The part I found fascinating is that the use of the printing press was closely linked to the strengthening of national identity after the bible was translated into countries native languages. This increased national identity eroded people’s link to the Catholic church as they began to associate themselves more as people of a land with a common language and less as a people based solely on a common religion.

A quote from the book that I particularly enjoyed was from Plato writing to Thoth regarding Thoth’s “invention of writing”:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

Sounds like this xkcd comic, no?

I think smartphones are the next disruptive innovation for the human race. Their use has become so pervasive and the capabilities they are enabling so diverse, from instant access of information to augmented reality, that I believe they are fundamentally changing how we interact with each other and our environment. What moveable type did for the written word, smartphones are doing for information.