This post is part of a historical overview of different economic systems which started with tribal economics and is continuing in the era of Kingdoms and Empire.
When considering how new technologies effect the communications topography of society I usually put them into one of two different groups. On the one hand are technologies that caused a fundamental shift in the form of the topography such as the ability to count (in conjunction with surpassing the Dunbar limit) enabled a shift from the few-to-few egalitarian tribe to a few-to-many reciprocal tribe. Other technologies don't change the network pattern but change it's scale - essentially by bringing more people into a social systems influence.
Most technologies fall into the latter category, with very few in the first. Writing is an odd ball. If asked to name an important communications invention, it would surely be near the top, if not at the top, of the list, yet it did not really change the pattern that started with the surpassing of the Dunbar limit and the introduction of one-to-many communications topology. It was however a very important invention because it made communication persistent over both time and space. This enabled the emergence of the state and a great enlarging of the number of people who could reside within a society. Chiefdoms would usually have a total of about 10,000 people, but states can have many millions. This population change was enabled by writing for several reasons. Two important ones are:
Firstly, it allowed for edicts to be written down and passed onto underlings in other areas who could then act on them without doubt. It also meant that if an underling choose not to act on them the leader could punish them without doubt as to if they had received clear instructions. This allowed for a much greater sphere of control. A larger population was no longer limited to only the population density within an easily travelable area, but could extend for thousands of miles.
Secondly, it allowed for record keeping, which in turn enabled the new command economy that emerged with chiefdoms to work with a vastly larger population. The earliest examples of writing found suggest that it developed to aid in the transaction of goods. One of the earliest examples of writing comes from symbols pressed into clay envelopes that represented contracts. The envelopes contained a number of cones that represented a value. The symbol on the outside allowed the owner to know how many cones and of what type were inside without having to break open the envelope. In time the envelope was dropped and only the symbols remained. The next post will explore the command economy in more depth.
Writing allowed chiefs to consolidate their power and become emperors, not due to anything inherent in the act of writing, but in the cost of production and consumption of writing. First of all, literacy is an expensive skill to learn, it takes years of study and practice, during which the students material needs must be taken care of, thus putting it out of the reach of all but the powerful. Secondly, the materials were expensive; preparing calf skins for writing on is a skilful, time consuming and expensive process. Thirdly, only the powerful had a communications network - the runners, riders and sailors - which allowed them to take advantage of writings benefits. In short, only a few could write and read, a few more could only read and the vast majority could do neither. This allows the one-to-many communications topology that emerged with the breaking of the Dunbar limit to be consolidated across a population of millions.
Writing wasn't the only technology to develop in this time, many other inventions played their part in expanding the population size: The plough allowed food production to increase, which could in turn support a wider variety of specialist craftspeople and bureaucrats whilst transportation technologies such as horse ridding and ships enabled the borders to be stretched further still.
In the next post we will turn the spot light on the by now dominant command economy and in the post after that an important side effect; a social structure which essentially locks most of the population up in drudgery causing innovation to diminish.
Wright, Robert. 2001 Nonzero
Nolan, Patrick and Lenski, Gerhard. (2009) Human Societies : An Introduction to Macrosociology, Eleventh Edition