The Second Information Revolution (A Brief History of Humankind)

Their function as a stamp of ownership on this item or that was mundane, but the best of them carry images of astonishing vivacity and refinement.

—An art critic’s view of ancient cylinder seals

The oldest surviving written reference to King Solomon’s Temple is an inscription on a shard of clay from the seventh century B.C. What might the inscription be? Lines from a prayer? A paean to divinity? No. The inscription is a receipt. Someone donated three shekels of silver to the temple, and the gift was duly recorded.

Writing has been an instrument for some of the highest expressions of the human spirit: poetry, philosophy, science. But to understand it—why it came into being, how it changed the human experience—we have to first appreciate its crass practicality. It evolved mainly as an instrument of the mundane: the economic, the administrative, the political.

Confusion over this point is understandable. Some scholars have equated the origin of "civilization" with the origin of writing. Laypeople sometimes take this equation to mean that with writing humanity put aside its barbarous past and started behaving in gentlemanly fashion, sipping tea and remembering to say "please." And indeed, this may be only a mild caricature of what some nineteenth-century scholars actually meant by the equation: writing equals Greece equals Plato; illiteracy equals barbarism equals Attila the Hun.

But, in truth, if you add literacy to Attila the Hun, you don’t get Plato. You get Genghis Khan. During the thirteenth century, he administered what even today is the largest continuous land empire in the history of the world. And he could do so only because he had the requisite means of control: a script that, when carried by his pony express, amounted to the fastest large-scale information-processing technology of his era. One consequence was to give pillaging a scope beyond Attila’s wildest dreams. Information technology, like energy technology or any other technology, can be a tool for good or bad. By itself, it is no guarantor of moral progress or civility.

If there is even rough validity in equating writing with civilization—and there is—it lies along a different plane. "Civilization," in a more technical sense of the word, is sometimes used to denote societies that have reached the state level of organization. And while writing doesn’t guarantee statehood, it is a helpful ingredient. It opens up whole new realms of non-zero-sumness, and greatly lubricates the transition from chiefdom to state. Around the world, the evolution of state-level societies was intertwined with new ways to record and transmit information.

The advance of culture to the level of the state, to civilization in the technical sense of the word, did in some sense pave the way for civilization in the layperson’s sense of the word, civilization as an arena for civilized behavior. With the state would come, for example, the rule of law, which mandated that citizens treat each other with some minimal respect and systematized the punishment for failing to do so.

Indeed, one might argue that, as a general but not rigid rule, writing has made life better in various ways—even, eventually, eroding the power of tyrants. And one might make similar arguments about other thresholds in data processing, such as the advent of the printing press and of the Internet. But first we must understand the evolution of writing, for the printing press and the Internet are in some ways extensions of this ancient revolution in data storage and transmission.

TELLING FORTUNES

Like most truly epic cultural innovations—farming, for example—writing appear to have arisen independently in several places. Scholars long insisted otherwise. Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, western historians, especially, took a "monogenetic" view of civilization’s spread, insisting that Chinese and New World cultures were largely derivative. In the case of the New World, especially, this claim took some ingenuity, but Eurocentric scholars were up to the task. A nineteenth-century French anthropologist, pondering remnants of Mayan writing, theorized that residents of the mythic continent of Atlantis, having abandoned their homeland before it sank, sailed to the New World, bringing literacy.

Today, there is no good evidence even for more ober scenarios of east-west contact that could explain American writing—which existed before the time of Christ—as an import from the Old World. And within the Old World, the origin of writing in China after 2000 B.C. was probably independent of its origin in the Near East around 3000 B.C. The academic consensus is that writing arose at least three times independently. And, just as there are "proto-agricultural" and "horticultural" societies—illustrating agriculture in the process of evolving—there are examples of writing in mid-evolution. Easter Island featured a primitive and apparently indigenous script called rongorongo.

Some scholar talk as if writing arose in the Near East, the New World, and China for very different purposes. The simplest version of the stereotypes runs something like this: The Sumerian script of the Near East was heavily economic in function; the Maya were more inclined to history, politics, and religion (including an elaborate astronomy-cum-astrology); the Chinese used their script to tell fortunes. But such generalizations turn out to rest largely on the assumption that in each culture the earliest known example of writing represents the earliest instance of it.

Consider the claim, quite common until recently, that Chinese writing arose as a means of divination. It’s true that the earliest Chinese examples of true writing are etchings on "oracle bones" made during the second millennium B.C. Questions were engraved in the shoulder blades of sheep, cattle, or pigs. The bones, after being heated, yielded supposedly prophetic cracks, whose interpretation might be recorded as well. ("It should be Fu Hao whom the king order to attack Jen." Or this gem of reassurance: "In the next ten day there will be no disaster.") But, a scholar have begun to realize, shoulder blades probably weren’t the medium of choice for more casual jottings. The Chinese presumably wrote on less durable things—bamboo or silk or wood—that have since decomposed.

Mesoamerica has the same problem. Surviving examples of early Mayan hieroglyphics come in durable media: monumental hunks of stone. But of course, things that societies write on government edifices are not generally representative of things that societies write, as a stop at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a glance at the New York Post, will attest.

THE EVOLUTION OF WRITING

Only in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, in the land now known as Iraq, is there much hard evidence about the earliest evolution of a script. There the medium for early writing was not silk or bamboo but soft clay that, once dried, preserves symbols long enough for archaeologists to find them. Clay tablets were so abundant that whole trash heaps of them have been found. So we can speculate with some confidence about the early evolution of what may have been the world’s first true system of writing: Sumerian cuneiform, the sinew that bound what may have been the world’s first civilization.

The most widely accepted theory about the birth of Sumerian writing was developed by Pierre Amiet and documented by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. It begins with little clay tokens that show up in the eighth millennium B.C., as agriculture is coming to the Fertile Crescent. The tokens stand for particular crops. A cone and a sphere, for example, represented grain in two standard quantities, the ban and the bariga, roughly a modern-day liter and bushel, respectively. The tokens seem to have been used for accounting, perhaps recording how much a particular family had given to the granary, or how much it owed.

As cities were forming, in the second half of the fourth millennium, there came more complex tokens, elaborately shaped and marked. Often they symbolized products of an urban economy: luxury goods such as perfume and metal, processed foods such as bread and beer.

The shift from these three-dimensional symbols to two-dimensional, written symbols illustrates just how plodding cultural evolution can seem when observed up close, on a time scale of decades rather than millennia. Sometimes records were kept by storing tokens in large clay envelopes about the size of a tennis ball. Five clay cones might be sealed inside an envelope to record a debt or payment of five bans of grain. As a convenience, the tokens were pressed against the soft surface of the envelope before being enclosed. That way a person could "read" the contents of an envelope without having to break it open. Two circles and a wedge would mean the envelope contained two spheres and a cone. Apparently it was some time before a key insight dawned: the two-dimensional imprint on the outside of the envelope had rendered the three-dimensional contents superfluous. The envelopes could now become tablets.

This was the beginning of Sumerian cuneiform. The system evolved for millennia, growing more abstract and powerful. Thus the tokens for a little grain and a lot of grain— the cone and sphere—became, in two-dimensional form, general numerical symbols: a wedge meant one, and a circle meant ten. These signs could now be placed next to the symbol for an object to indicate its quantity. Eventually, the symbols for objects—and for people, and actions, and so on—came to stand for sounds, steering western civilization toward the modern phonetic alphabet.

Some scholars find the link between tokens and cuneiform unconvincing. But even they agree that the earliest examples of Sumerian writing are economic: tabulations of livestock and food and goods. And most agree that such data helped orchestrate division of labor and public works. A farmer brings barley to the temple, the payment is duly recorded, and the barley goes to pay men who build a canal—a canal from which the farmer may in one sense or another benefit.

For all we know, Chinese and Mesoamerican script received similarly strong early assistance from non-zero-sum logic. Certainly, in both cases, there were symbols for numbers by the time durable written records were being left. Still, the point here is not that written numerals universally preceded written words, or that the earliest writing was everywhere economic in function. The point is just that everywhere writing seems to have been a practical technology, figuring in economics or politics or both.

Yes, there were historical narratives in China, the Near East, and Mesoamerica. But their function was largely to buttress the authority of the ruler—to establish his noble, perhaps divine lineage; to selectively preserve his feats of government and conquest; to convey the vastness of his empire, the deadness of his foes. Yes, the Maya recorded incredibly precise astronomical observations, but this was part of a religion that, like other state religions, helped keep the people obedient and harmoniously productive.

WRITING AND TRUST

To say that writing transformed the potential for non-zero-sum interaction comes close to redundancy. For the link between information and non-zero-sumness is so basic that it’s hard to imagine deep changes in the former that wouldn’t deeply change the latter. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to ay that non-zero-sum dynamics are the reason information gets transmitted in the first place. As the pioneering game theorist Thomas Schelling has observed, in a purely zero-sum relationship, there is no rational reason to communicate. Opposing coaches have no cause to speak before a game. If you see them in extended conference, they’re probably talking about some non-zero-sum realm, where their interests partly overlap. Both want to avoid injured players, and may decide to reschedule a game in bad weather. But neither coach has an interest in honestly communicating anything about the game itself.

As we’ll see later in this topic, Schelling’s point is applicable to the origins of communication in the broadest sense of the term. Primordial communication, back before evolution had produced animals that talked (or for that matter animals, period), happened because of what can aptly be called a non-zero-sum relationship between bits of genetic material—bits that, by virtue of sitting next to each other, were in the same boat, their fates tightly linked. But for now let’s stick with information in the familiar sense—words, numbers. By following the logic of game theory a bit further, we can see how new ways of storing and sending these symbols expanded and enriched the social fabric.

Two partners in crime are being separately interrogated. Each will be better off if neither rats on the other than if both do. But, though cooperation is in their mutual interest, there are two great barrier to it. One is a lack of communication; you can’t agree on a joint strategy if there’s a wall between you and your accomplice. And if you overcome this barrier, you face a second one—lack of trust; if you think your accomplice is going to renege on the deal, and rat on you after all, then you’re better off copping a plea and ratting on him. Somehow, this fear of being cheated must be overcome for things to work out well.

If indeed barrier to information are one of the two basic impediments to non-zero-sum gain, then obviously new information technologies might unlock some positive sums. Yet the more dramatic effect of writing may have been to overcome the second barrier, the trust barrier. In ancient Mesopotamia, a lender didn’t have to fear that the borrower would deny all recollection of the loan, and the borrower didn’t have to fear that the lender would exaggerate it. There was an attested record, such as one from Babylon noting that a man had borrowed "ten shekels of silver" from the "priestess Amat- Shamash"; the man "will pay the Sun-God’s interest. At the time of the harvest he will pay back the sum and the interest upon it." If you doubt the value of such peace of mind, consider how hard people in nonliterate societies work to etch financial obligations in the public memory. The ostentatious Potlatch seems less absurd when viewed as a way to assemble a large audience to witness the incurring of a large debt. And, on a smaller scale, when one family of Northwest Coast Indians would give food to a needier family, public ritual was de rigueur.

Writing was hardly the only thing in the ancient states of Asia, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica that helped solve the trust problem. Another was the systematization of justice: the assurance that cheaters will be punished. But even here, writing helps; legal codes carry more precision and heft when etched in something solid. The code of the Mesopotamian city of Eshnunna—written a century before the more famous code of Hammurabi—left no doubt what would happen if you paid a man a shekel to harvest your field and he never got around to it: he would pay you ten shekels.

Ten shekels, by the way, was also the punishment for punching a man in the face. If you went further, and severed his nose by biting it, that would cost you one full mina (60 shekels) of silver; severed finger were cheaper—two-thirds of a mina each. These laws, though not governing economic behavior, still served productivity; they made urban living, with all its potential efficiencies (including the data-processing efficiencies of dense population) tranquil enough to bear. The informal justice system of a chiefdom just wouldn’t do now that daily life involved so many close encounters with people who were neither relatives nor acquaintances. So the government had to build a new anti-cheating technology, a new technology of trust—trust not just in economic justice, but in the larger social contract, the mutual nonaggression pact that, by relieving people of fear and suspicion, smooths all kinds of cooperative efforts.

This is one sense in which "civilization" in the technical sense—a state-level polity, typically featuring writing—often leads to civilization in the nontechnical sense: walking around without fear of getting your nose bitten off. Still, this comfortable civility has so often accompanied writing not because literacy soothes the savage soul, but for earthier reasons. Societies that fail to use writing to solve various dimensions of the "trust" problem, that fail to create space for non-zero-sumness, typically fall, often at the hands of societies that better harness writing’s potential. In the long run, ancient states had no more "choice" about whether to adopt new information technologies than they had about whether to adopt chariots, bronze shields, or iron words. In all such cases, you use it or lose.

BUREAUCRATIC BRAINS

The justice system was only one part of the bureaucracy that emerged in ancient states and that is one of the hallmarks of a state. Bureaucracy has since gotten such a bad reputation that one of its dictionary definitions is "administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine." But, technically, bureaucracy is just government by distinct functional units, each run by a specialist—division of labor in the processing of information. So it’s no surprise that new information technologies usually played a role. In Mesopotamia, for example, bureaucrats had ornate cylindrical seals that, impressed on a clay tablet, served as a majestic signature and carried official weight, shoring up trust in loans and other transactions.

And then there were the tablets themselves. Today a big hunk of clay seems like a non-optimal way to store data. But in its day this information technology revolutionized the large-scale coordination of matter and energy. In a single year of the Ur III dynasty, around 2000 B.C., bureaucratic tablets recorded the processing of 350,000 sheep, brought in by taxation and other means and used for, among other things, paying the salaries of government worker (including bureaucrats, no doubt). Government laborer were also paid in bread, fish, oil—all such disbursements precisely registered, as were the hour spent earning them by, for example, digging canals. And when the work was done, the government, like governments today, took conspicuous credit. In the Babylon of Hammurabi’s day, one canal was named "Hammurabi is the Prosperity of the People." Your tax dollar at work.

All of this bureaucratic accounting required standard units of measurement—a kind of information technology in their own right. One of the most widely found artifacts in the early Near East is the "bevelrim bowl," which is thought to have been a measure for foods paid to workers. It shows up in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C., as do cylindrical seals, writing, and city-states.

Ancient city-states had common interests—goods they could trade, mutual enemies they could jointly annihilate. But to reap the fruits of this non-zero-sumness they needed first to breach the information barrier. And back when the fastest mode of transport was the donkey, frequent conferences among kings weren’t feasible. Couriers, on the other hand, were a dime a dozen. And, with the advent of writing, they could carry long, precise messages.

What’s more, these missives served as hard evidence of deals forged and promises made. They thus made a dent in the trust barrier. And in doing so they spared no rhetorical expense. An ancient peace treaty reads: "He who shall not observe all these words written upon this silver tablet of the land of the Hatti and of the land of Egypt, may the thousand gods of the land of the Hatti and the thousand gods of the land of Egypt destroy his house, his country, and his servants."

Of course, the trust barrier is a stubborn thing. A certain wariness inevitably remains between people who have had few face-to-face encounters. One time-honored wariness reducer, going back to the days of the chiefdom, was to use the bonds of kinship; potentates sealed alliances with intermarriage of daughters or sons. Yet another approach, going back to the days of the Big Man, was to use the vocabulary of kinship, along with lavish professions of devotion. During the third millennium B.C., the king of Ebla in the Middle East wrote to the king of Hamazi: "You are my brother and I am your brother, fellow man, whatever desire comes from your mouth I will grant, just as you will grant the desire that comes from my mouth."

Kingly relations were sometimes lubricated with "gifts" so expensive that they amounted to de facto trade—reciprocal exchange of the exotic goods in which each kingdom specialized. This economic ingredient was alluded to by a Babylonian king who wrote, "Between Kings there is brotherhood, friendship, alliance and good relations—if there is an abundance of silver and an abundance of gold." This sort of cynicism needn’t cause despair. Another way of making much the same point is to say that where non-zero-sum logic leads, amity often follows. Given the power of non-zero-sum logic, this would seem to bode well for the long-run expansion of amity.

PILES OF CORPSES

A more legitimate cause for despair is that this amity is often enlisted in the cause of enmity. The point of alliance was often to get aid during war (or, at least, to ensure the neutrality of a potential meddler). The royal archives of Ebla, so replete with those professions of brotherhood, are also replete with a phrase recorded by the king again and again, apparently with pride: "Piles of corpses I raised."

If a city-state succeeded in dominating another—by conquest or threat of conquest—and thus formed an empire, then communications technology was of course vital. The Ur III dynasty built a "donkey express"—roads with stations housing messengers. Other civilizations had their rough equivalents, such as Aztec relay runner with messages tucked into the forked ends of batons.

Analogies between societies and organisms go back to the beginnings of cultural evolutionism. A state bureaucracy is a bit like a brain, and Aztec runners, sending commands to military outposts or distant farmers, are a bit like nerve impulses. That these analogies are easy doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Just as you can’t imagine an organism as complex as a human being lacking vast data storage and fast data processing and transmission, it’s hard to imagine a state-level society without a significant information technology. Scholars sometimes speak of "nonliterate" civilizations—the Inca in South America or such West African states as the Ashanti of the early eventeenth century or the Dahomey of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But on close inspection, such societies seem always to have ome good information technology. They may not be able to record their poems, but they can handle more vital data, such as numbers, just fine.

The Dahomey, for example, took a census to aid taxation and military mobilization. Their database consisted of a room full of boxes containing pebbles that signified the number of men and women, boys and girls, in each village. Updating was continuous, via the registering of every birth and death (including the cause of death) throughout the land. For similar purposes the Inca used the quipu, the variously knotted and colored strings that only specialists understood. (Today they are understood by no one, but the best guess is that they recorded not just numbers but historical events.) Much of the Inca nervous system consisted of "roads," or at least footpaths, that snaked through and around the Andes, sometimes across suspension bridges; the roads were long enough, all told, to just about encompass the world. Runners were stationed one to five miles apart (the flatter the stretch, the longer the gap), and might hand off either quipus or oral messages, ritually repeated during the handoff to suppress error. Data could travel 150 miles a day.

But that’s nothing compared to the Ashanti, who sent data hundreds of miles in a few minutes with a network of "talking drums" that could summon political leaders, warn of danger, mobilize the military, announce deaths, or (on a less urgent note) broadcast proverbs. Differences in tone had meaning, as in the Ashanti language itself.

This topic has made little use of such familiar phrases as the "Stone Age" and the "Bronze Age." The reason, clearly, is not an aversion to "technological determinism," but rather a belief that metallurgy makes for a bad version of it. The Maya, the Aztecs, and the Inca were basically Stone Age people—what metal they had was used mainly for jewelry and the like, not words or hields. Yet they had much more in common with Egypt or China in the Bronze Age than with, say, the Stone Age Shoshone of their own hemisphere.

A more useful technological dividing line between the Shoshone on the one hand and state-level societies on the other comes from energy and information technologies. All state-level societies farmed, and all had (relatively) sophisticated means of handling data.

Even with energy and information technologies, the word "determinism" is a bit much. A lot more goes into a state-level society than farming and processing data. For that matter, the term "state-level society" is itself misleading in its seeming firmness. It’s true that the core criteria of statehood—including centralized, somewhat bureaucratic government, the power to draft an army, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, regular taxation (often in the form of labor or goods)—tend to be found in clusters. But they don’t show up simultaneously, or always in the same order. Hence ongoing arguments about borderline cases. (Did Hawaii, after European contact, cross the threshold between chiefdom and state?)

Still, such fuzziness notwithstanding, some things are clear. Social complexity tends to grow beyond the level of the chiefdom, toward the level of the state. And intimately involved in the growth is information technology: advances in the storage and transmission of data and in the processing of data, including the invention of bureaucracy. By happenstance, we have a fairly clear view of this process in only one part of the world: Mesopotamia. And there growth in the complexity of society precisely mirror growth in the complexity of the symbol system: as the social structure becomes more elaborate, so do the tokens, because the symbols and the structure feed off one another.

ONE MAN’S NZS IS ANOTHER MAN’S ZS

To say that writing eroded the two big barrier to non-zero-sumness isn’t to say that writing turned society into a cornucopia of mutual benefit. Indeed, according to one common academic stereotype, ancient states carried repression and exploitation to new heights, making chiefdoms look populist by comparison; workers toiled away so that elites—having precisely recorded the toil—could precisely underpay them. How can we reconcile this scenario with my paean to the benefits of writing? Where’s the win-win dynamic?

To begin with, the dynamic exists among elites. When Mesopotamian big hots traded wool cloth to big shots in other lands for the wood and stone needed for Mesopotamian construction, big hots on both ends of the deal benefited. To be sure, the Mesopotamian women who spun the wool into yarn—their output and wages tallied on clay tablets— may have benefited as well. After all, the ability to market yarn internationally raised its value, ome of which could in theory trickle down to the spinners. And presumably the spinners benefited from various forms of bureaucratically realized non-zero-sumness— the diversity of available foods and crafts, the irrigation canals and other capital projects. Still, it doesn’t take extreme cynicism to imagine that in general elites skimmed more than a bit off the top. (Tablets from a state brewery in Mesopotamia show one administrator walking off with thirty-five jars of beer. I’m suspicious.)

That the benefits of ancient writing may have clustered near the top of the social pyramid shouldn’t surprise us. Power from new technologies tends to accrue to the people who wield them. Ancient wielders of the written word became gatekeeper of the wealth it unlocked.

The fewer the gatekeepers, the more power they had. Ancient Mesopotamia had an estimated literacy rate of less than 1 percent. It’s hard to say whether this reflected an attempt by elites to monopolize the technology, but in any event cribes were a small and esteemed class, complete with an official deity (aptly, the goddess of fertility).Entry to the class—via lengthy instruction at the "tablet house"—was granted mainly to the privileged. A Sumerian text describes a rich man giving his son’s writing teacher food, a robe, and a ring to ensure a passing grade in spite of his son’s indiscipline.

Many scribes were mere transcribers, and didn’t themselves call the shots. Still, they seem to have reveled in the power emanating from their art. Some Egyptian scribes opined that the lower classes, lacking in brains, had to be driven like cattle. Actually, what the lower classes lacked was their own personal scribe.

It isn’t just economic power that information technology confers. Concerted political organization—to resist oppression, to lobby for lower taxes, whatever—is a form of nonzero-sum interaction among people who share an interest. As such, it calls for communication. African slaves in America would later demonstrate this fact by organizing slave revolts via talking drum. And writing, of course, would come to play a role in revolt as well. (During the U.S. Civil War, most southern states made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write.) But in the ancient states, with literacy rare, we find only glimmers of its future subversive use. A piece of graffiti from Egypt in the third millennium B.C. reads: "You arrested me and beat my father. . . . Who are you now to steal from me?"

Some scholars, comparing ancient states to chiefdoms, have argued that writing led to concentrations of wealth and power. But, strictly speaking, what they mean is that the concentration of writing abilities led to a concentration of power. The question of how far economic and political power would eventually pread beyond the upper classes was partly a question about the future of literacy. How strong were the forces favoring its expansion? This is a question to which we’ll return. (Here’s a clue: strong.) Meanwhile, even as elites held their monopoly on information technology, there was still some limit on feasible exploitation, including the constraints we saw at work in chiefdoms: in addition to facing revolt, leaders face other polities, and both forms of pressure punish highly parasitic regimes.

Writing isn’t the only elemental information technology that evolved in ancient states. Money—a standardized currency—is an information technology. It is a kind of record of your past labors, of their value a judged by society. And when you spend the money, it becomes a kind of signal, confirming your wants and conveying them, however obliquely, to the various people involved in satisfying them; passing from hand to hand to hand, money flows through the nervous system of the larger invisible hand, informing supplier of demand.

In modern times, much kvetching has been done about money. Some consider it a tool for oppressing the downtrodden. But, in historical perspective, money looks more like a solvent of oppression. By invigorating market economies, it offered an alternative to a command economy dominated by the literate few. If an economic information technology is going to be wielded on your behalf, it’s usually best to do the wielding yourself.

Money in truly convenient form—coins, portable and widely respected—didn’t how up until the eventh century B.C., courtesy of the Lydians. If you don’t think coins were a major advance, consider Homer’s description, centuries earlier, of the value of Glaucus’s armor: it was worth a hundred oxen, compared to nine oxen for Diomedes’ shoddy stuff. (Imagine the armor store during the holiday shopping season.)

Actually, even before coins, ancient states were moving toward de facto, if still inconvenient, currencies. Barley or weighed-out silver was used in Mesopotamia, wheat in Egypt, cocoa beans by the Aztecs. And, when these were lacking, simple barter was always an option.

Indeed, the old idea that ancient states were "pre-market" is now dead. They had mixed economies, if often with a strong bias toward the government part of the mix. In Mesopotamia, private merchants conducted distant trade, a fact that probably worked to the ultimate advantage of commoners. Political power, too, now seems to have been dispersed more widely in Mesopotamia than the stereotype of the totalitarian ancient state would have it. Still, by today’s standards, there was room for progress.

And progress there would be. Slavery, human sacrifice, and milder forms of exploitation would diminish over time. Today civilization is more "civilized"—in the everyday, nontechnical sense of the word—than the ancient civilizations. And a primary reason is the way money and writing would over time evolve and, as we’ll see, interact.

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