26 August 2019

technology and us

From self to selfies

The phone has become the repository of our souls. But humankind has always needed such devices

By Catherine Nixey

This story appears in the new edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Depending on your membership, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print or as an ebook in mid-August. To buy a copy of our short book of long reads, visit tortoisemedia.com/shop

Life offers few certainties. But one might be: if a medical procedure involves stirrups, it is not going to be much fun. Another might be: if a procedure involves not just stirrups but also a speculum, it is going to be even less enjoyable. If you don’t know what a speculum is, look it up. And count yourself lucky.

All of which makes the recent furore over the use of mobile phones in rape cases all the more striking. There are few words to describe the profound horror of rape. Few more that can convey the horror of the legal and medical investigative assault – that can involve stirrups, and specula, and worse – that follows for the victim.

What is interesting, though, is that when the investigation of rape cases hit the news recently, it was not these procedures, invasive though they are, that were causing outrage. Instead, what was enraging commentators was an act so commonplace and banal that, if you are reading this in a cafe or at your kitchen table, you could perform it right now and no one would even notice. It was the act of taking your mobile phone out of your bag, sliding it across the table to someone else, and letting them have it and study it, and everything in it. Just that.

“Just”. Of course, there is no “just” about phones any more – as this proved. Because the visceral reaction that many felt towards this news was not just about rape, or about the collection of evidence, or the police. What it was also really about was our phones. This forced us all to look, hard, at the relationship that we have with these things. And when we did, we didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Actually “relationship” is not quite the right word for this. This is far more intense than any relationship you will ever have. Our phones are often the first things we reach for in the morning and the last thing we touch at night. They far outstrip most relationships in terms of the attention lavished on them. In the hours of touching we give them, they surpass any lover. And this intensity is only going to get more extreme. In Silicon Valley they are already working on brain-computer interfaces.

As this furore made us realise, it’s less that these things have a relationship with our selves; they are our selves. Actually, they offer rather more accurate information on our innermost thoughts than our consciousness can. We lie about our character not just to our friends but even to our own minds. Your phone, however, sees your undisguised id. And then uses it. There are AI programs that know if you have a cold before you do; others that claim to know better how you want to vote than you do yourself.

This was never meant to happen. As a superb New York Times article earlier this year pointed out, even Steve Jobs wouldn’t have anticipated – or wanted – this level of closeness. Watch his speech at the launch of the first iPhone and it is startling just how wrong Jobs gets his creation. “It’s the best iPod we’ve ever made,” he says at one point. Then, a little later: “The killer app is making calls.”

Making calls. Imagine. The predictions from the founding fathers of these technologies have often been amazingly off-point. Alexander Graham Bell famously declared of his new invention: “I truly believe that one day there will be a telephone in every town in America.”

And this is partly what has unnerved everyone so much – and what was at the root of some of that outrage. Computers and phones – even iPhones – were never meant to see the devices and desires of our own hearts. That was seen as the job of literature. Or God. Phones were meant for phoning people. And early computers weren’t invented to be an uncanny second self. They were invented to count things.

But somehow, they slipped the bonds we set on them. They have far outstripped the imagination or control even of their own inventors and have set off in their own direction. There is a famous Jewish folk character called the golem, a model of man created from inanimate clay. But then, somehow, the golem becomes animate and, in the eeriest of stories, uncontrollable. Phones are our golems. No wonder we fear them.

To try to understand how this act of unintentional creation has happened, people commonly look to the sages of Silicon Valley to see what they say. Or they look at apps. Or they peer at the iPhone itself. They are vastly over-complicating the matter. To really, truly, understand what has happened, it is necessary to look at something far simpler. It is necessary to look at a few pieces of mud that lie in Room 55 of the British Museum. And to a time when humanity made something else out of clay that we then lost control of.

If it seems odd to go back in time, it isn’t. There is precedent for this in computing. The man who foresaw perhaps better than anyone what the internet would become, the man who, in the sixties, coined the terms “the global village” and “the medium is the message” (and who had a splendid cameo in the film Annie Hall) was Marshall McLuhan. But McLuhan didn’t do this by looking at the emerging science of computers – then essentially glorified abacuses. McLuhan did it instead by looking at Elizabethan pamphlets and the Gutenberg printing press.

With this information he understood the internet, brilliantly, before it had even happened. He had the idea that, in the future, we would live in a hyper-connected universe; that we’d use smartphones that would become extensions of our very selves. These phones would offer us unimaginable intellectual wealth; the world’s libraries at our fingertips.

Our lives and even our personalities would start to be altered by this. We’d start to exist, he said, as “discarnate man”, creatures disconnected from the real world, spending our time and attention and our money in this phony virtual village. But don’t be misled by that cosy word “village”. This wasn’t a Utopia and McLuhan’s village wasn’t a sweet, thatched-roof sort of place. It was gossipy and vicious, tribal and judgemental and quick to anger. This village was not St Mary Mead. It was Salem.

Similarly, to understand how phones have performed the phenomenon that they have – how they have replaced literature and lovers as the repositories of our soul – we need to look not at Silicon Valley but at another valley altogether – that of the Euphrates, in ancient Mesopotamia – and to those pieces of mud in the British Museum.

These aren’t just any old pieces of mud. They’re rather nice to look at, for one thing. They are about the same size, shape and tempting touchability as a mobile phone. With rounded corners and smooth lines they all but beg your hand to reach out and touch them. You can’t, by the way. The most ancient of the tablets held by the BM are more than 5,000 years old and among the most precious archaeological objects the world has ever found.

Their similarity to the size and shape of a phone is, as academics will point out, no accident. Just like phones, these were made to be easily held in their owner’s one hand, while the other hand wrote out a message on them. As it happens, they are also called “tablets”, and once upon a time were written on by styluses. Look closely and you can see that they are scored with sharp triangular shapes: cuneiform. They might be mud but they are very valuable and interesting mud. The British Museum considers them so interesting that it keeps about 130,000 of them.

Because what you are seeing in these tablets – and the words are enough to send a shiver down all but the most unimaginative spine – is the birth of writing itself. And here is one of the most interesting things of all about these objects: most of what is written on them is stupendously boring. Not just a bit boring, in the way that an email from an aunt can be boring. But really, really boring. They chronicle, in exhaustive detail, the movements and numbers of bricks, flour and labourers, not to mention goats, donkeys and fattened pigs, within a community. These tablets have their value, to historians in particular, but none is exactly PG Wodehouse.

But then that shouldn’t be surprising since what these tablets are, as Jacob Dahl, professor of Assyriology in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, explains, is not really writing as we think of it at all. Rather, they are accounting tools; ways of making it easier for the bean counters of ancient Iraq to count their goats, beer and barley. “Most people think that writing must have been invented to communicate,” Dahl says. “But it wasn’t.”

Boringness is something of a theme in the world of ancient scripts. When in 1952 the young Michael Ventris brilliantly, thrillingly cracked Linear B, an ancient script from Knossos, the classical world held its breath. What wonderful secrets might this script, which predated any other Greek writing by the best part of a millennium, hold? Ancient versions of Homer? Prototypes of tragic verse? The world’s oldest love poetry? Perhaps that other ancient Greek favourite: smutty poetry? Nope. None of the above. What Linear B contained, in abundance, was an awful lot of information about goats. Different sorts of goats. She-goats, he-goats, gender neutral goats. But still. A lot of goats.

This feels odd. We instinctively think of literature as the point and aim of writing. When we teach writing in schools we do not teach it with spreadsheets. It’s used in them, sure. But they aren’t the main thing. They’re very low down on the syllabus. The ancient authors of those tablets thought so too. When they wanted to explain the birth of the miracle of cuneiform writing, they did so with a myth about a king who wanted to send the longest message that anyone had ever sent. Memory wouldn’t cut it for this message. And so, ran this myth, writing was invented.

It’s understandable, as communicative writing is the thing that supercharged our species. It’s writing that revolutionised the human story – that turned prehistory into history and then into Herodotus. Writing is a superpower and a minor daily miracle; the thing that enables everything from shopping lists to Shakespeare, the thing that holds a mirror to our minds, the thing that we read to know we are not alone, that lets us pin our minds to paper and hold ourselves in the palm of our hand.

But all of it – the poetry, the prose, the miracle – is a mistake. Or rather, if not quite a mistake, then – like much of modern phones and computing – an accidental byproduct. Writing wasn’t invented to allow Tolstoy. It was invented, says Dahl, to enable the easy accounting of goods and livestock. The word that Dahl uses again and again to refer to early cuneiform writing is not “poetry” or “literature” or even “prose”. It is “spreadsheet”. The history of early writing, as one leading academic has put it, “is also the early history of counting and accounting”.

When Steve Jobs reflected on what made some of his early Apple computers – forerunners of the iPod and the iPhone – into a success, he didn’t say “because people realised that you will one day be able to store your soul on Apple products”. He didn’t say, because soon young hipsters everywhere from Palo Alto to London will be able to possess an object that knows them better than they do.

Jobs instead put it all down to VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for personal computers and a program that has been described as the first “killer app”. People bought an Apple computer back then not because they were waiting for the iPhone to appear. They bought it because they were the bean counters of California and they wanted to make adding up a bit easier. They bought it because they wanted spreadsheets.

This story is seen again and again. People bought mobile phones first, not because they wanted to converse with their lovers or Instagram their lives. The first mobile phones were car phones – brick-sized gadgets, much-mocked, used by eighties yuppies in flash suits to buy and sell stocks. Copper, steel, coal. Goats, barley, beer. Similarly, writing flourished in the ancient world not because people wanted to lay the foundations for Euripides and Sophocles, but because bureaucrats wanted to know where all their damn he-goats were going.

Then, in a small Sumerian city in what is now Iraq around four and a half millennia ago, something remarkable happened. Suddenly, after 700-odd years of grain and beer, almost without warning or preamble, something that is recognisably writing appears. These tablets aren’t just recording the movement of beer. They’re recording the movements of the heart. The proverbs found within these tablets talk about broken hearts and lonely ones, of liars and fickle females and drinking too much beer. It had begun. And, once it had begun, it never stopped.

A vast outpouring of words follows. Once the ancient Sumerians discovered writing as a way to communicate rather than count, they seem to have been unable to stop. They write about feasts and famine and the supernatural. They write poems and they write curses. They write epic poetry, about gods who are angered and send a flood to destroy mankind – except one man is told to save himself and “build a boat” and “make all living beings go up into the boat”. You might be able to guess how that one ends.

Letter writing appears not long after, and proliferates. People write letters without measure and, at times, without reason. Some of the things they write, says Dahl, seem pointless. “They write letters that reflect on what would happen the next day: ‘When I see you tomorrow we can discuss this further.’” The cost of writing and sending, via messenger, this sort of letter at that time was high and the practical benefit of it minimal. It is the ancient Sumerian equivalent of calling someone and telling them you are on the train. There’s no need to do this: they’ll find out soon enough anyway. But people do it now; people did it then.

The great imaginative leap had been made. Writing has begun. It then spreads, to other lands and other cultures, and it proliferates. It takes on a life of its own and takes up more and more of human lives and education and minds – and time. Its origins as an accounting tool are forgotten and more than one culture will, in their myths, attribute the origins of writing to the gods. In several places, writing is seen as having an uncanny, almost mystical power to contain humanity. Writing is no longer about accounting; it’s about our innermost self.

The world starts to fill with words, far more after Gutenberg has done his work. So many words follow the invention of the printing press that people despair of information overload. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” frets Erasmus in the 16th century.

And with this proliferation comes, always, more self. More self. More detailed self. Samuel Pepys. Tristram Shandy. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Karl Ove Knausgaard. All of them recording more and more and more of the ego, chronicling our lives ever more closely. The trivial self, the embarrassing self. The sublime self. The lavatorial one.

And today we have the apotheosis of all this self and all this information. We have the phone, the autobiographical tool par excellence. We Instagram our dinners, Facebook our children, chronicle our mornings, noons and afternoons in mind-numbing and occasionally foolish detail. Then, if we ever pause to think about what we are doing and what we have become, we feel surprised. How did phones turn into this?

We shouldn’t be surprised. This is just what happens: the unequalled self, the unstoppable soul, slips in. It happened first with the revolution of writing; again, with Gutenberg. Now it is happening yet again with phones. The medium is the message, said McLuhan. And the message is: this is what humans do.

Illustrations by Cat Finnie

Further reading

Don’t be put off by the title. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel isn’t all about Genesis. The real star of the story is cuneiform, which Finkel (an expert in the script) describes as “The world’s oldest and hardest writing”.

The title of “hardest writing” might, however, also be applied to Marshall McLuhan. Few– as that cameo in Annie Hall makes clear – understand his works fully. But it’s worth trying. His hugely influential The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man is the biggie: the book in which he coined the phrase “global village” – and foresaw many of the nasties we are living through today.

Many of those nasties are, of course, beamed into our lives via the iPhone. And if you really want to understand the genesis of that, then forget those doorstopper biographies of Steve Jobs and instead read Mariana Mazzucato’s Entrepreneurial State in which she argues that the true inventor of this widget was less Jobs than Uncle Sam (and CERN, and many another unsung state).