War, writing, and transmission problems

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Thu, 20 Oct 1994 23:33:00 CDT

I wanted to talk about war tonight, but I seem to be undergoing
all kinds of transmission errors. Let me make just one point:

The idea of a correlation between writing and war is not--quite--
a tautology. There's a countercase out there, after all: a state,
undeniably, with bounded territories, a centralized administration
over thousands of square miles and dozens of cities, codified laws,
AND what sure looks to me like war, but entirely without writing.
I refer (of course?) to the Inka (or Inca) state up and down the
western side of South America.

Kipus, those bundles of knotted cords carried by message-bearers,
were NOT a writing system. They were memory jogs that, apparently,
could not be read even by skilled interpreters unless they had
learned the verbal sequences corresponding to a particular bundle
of knots. OK, the knots in this section of this bundle "mean" the
number 3471, but there's no way to tell what that number refers to
unless you memorized it when you knotted the knots. Anybody else
might recognize the number if they knew how to interpret kipus,
but they wouldn't know if it was about 3471 soldiers or 3471 fish
or 3471 potatoes without the memorized VERBAL message that went with
the knots.

Of course humans have tremendous memory capacities if trained to use
them. The mid-medieval mental data storage and retrieval systems
(like, e.g., visualize a house--now put the things you want to
remember in separate rooms--and so on from there) made it possible
for a trained adept to keep lists of hundreds of items accurately.
Both Mongol and African non-literate tribal genealogists could keep
extremely complicated family trees going back many generations with
little or no transmission error. (Unless it was deliberate, of
course, such as the known fictionalizing in the genealogy of
Genghiz Khan--done to legitimize his claims to power, and known
to outside observers to be fictionalizing because of the separate,
independent, and written records kept by Chinese scribes.) It
was the widespread diffusion of writing, in Europe probably due
to Gutenberg's Revolution, that displaced these feats of memory.
Once writing is widely available, and widely useful because it's
possible to produce many copies of a piece of writing for little
more than the cost of paper, who needs to memorize? (For that
matter, who needs to do arithmetic once there are cheap hand-
held calculators?) (EVERYBODY, that's who, if you want to be
able to discover when you must have made a punching error...
but that's another, shall I say, "war"?)

Anyhow, either what looks and smells and feels like "war" at the
time of the arrival of the Pizarro brothers in Peru wasn't war,
and the Inkas didn't have a state, OR we'll have to say something
broader than "writing" is part of the causal nexus surrounding war.

What's the "something broader"? Trained data-keepers and message-
bearers in the absence of writing per se. If you want insurance
against slips of memory, you just use two data keepers and have
them recite (or sing?) their data simultaneously. Any slippage of
content would be immediately apparent. That's in principle, of
course--there's no need to work out the details now that we live in
a world of laptop, notebook, and smaller computers. (By the way,
Shakespeare interpreters have had centuries of work just tracing
the differences in various folio editions of the plays. Until
the advent of printing presses, and/or xerography or photography,
written copies tended NOT to be exact copies. The permanence and
immutability of the written record is largely illusion . . . )

What matters is not the medium but the message and its trans-

And God knows what's happening to my transmission here. What I
see on the screen has only a vague relationship to what I put in
at the keyboard. I quit, for now.

mike salovesh <SALOVESH@NIU.EDU> OR <t20mxs1@mvs.cso.niu.edu>