Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ancient Babylonian Information Technology .

Ancient Babylonian Information Technology .
Andre Willers
21 Mar 2009

Synopsis :
Large Middle-Eastern empires were made possible by a simple data-sorting and analysis technology . This greatly facilitated fair taxation , fair Law and large Armies.

Discussion :
From about 1600 BCE , baked clay tablets from royal libraries have a curious feature : holes in them at the same locations on different tablets . This lasted well into the Assyrian period . (See a photo of a tablet from the royal library of King Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BCE) of Nineveh on p25 of "Cuneiform" by CBF Walker ISBN 0-520-06115-2)
Or Google "cuneiform firing holes" . (They were first called "firing holes" ).

The layout of the holes are immediately reminiscent of Hollerith punch-cards .
Lends new meaning to the old "Do not bend , fold , spindle or mutilate."

A hole would be a "Yes" .

How it worked .
1.A mask (the format) is prepared at data-entry stage .
Eg . lists of cities that have paid their taxes .
2.Multiple duplicate clay tablets are prepared and the holes punched through according to the format .
3.Data is entered by stopping up the hole .(Eg a town that has not met its tax obligations)
4.The tablets are baked . You now have a nearly imperishable record .

5.Data Retrieval .
The above procedures are time consuming and expensive .
The data-retrieval is the crux of relative and absolute advantage .

Just line up the tablets behind the format-mask and stick a long , thin reeds through the selected holes . This is a "AND" gate .

Take out the tablets where at least one reed is blocked .
Eg , towns that have not paid their taxes .

Repeat analyses on these tablets to get deeper analysis of temporal or other patterns .
This can be done in hours to days , for centuries of data .

Quite sophisticated analyses can be performed in this manner . It was the main governmental decision system before electronic computers in the 20th century AD .

Advantages :

1.Fairness of tax .
Everybody tries to avoid tax . The rich and powerful are so successful at it that without proper record retrieval systems , the state's tax burden shifts to the poor . This is perceived as unfair (a hardwired neural behaviour that nearly all mammals have) . Over a certain threshold this leads to unrest and revolt . The state has to spend its revenue on internal suppression . It has turned an asset into a liability . This limited the size of empires .

2.Fairness of Law .
The concept of immutable law above the control of rulers is linked to the durability of baked clay and easy retrieval .
In water-based empires like the Middle-East , nobody can remember thousands of years of judgments handed down . Only the royal libraries have full copies , and access is restricted . But the king has to know what the previous rulings were to remain fair .
It is no accident that the reign of Hammurabi dates to just before the appearance of the first "firing holes" .

The Army .
Large , standing armies that enabled the empires to grow are constrained by logistics .
Fast information retrieval and analysis is essential .

The Assyrians were masters at this . They simply massed larger forces than their opponents and supplied them adequately , paid for by a workable tax-system .

Why were they eradicated ? The very efficiency of the tax system was their undoing . The general rate of tax on everybody went over 38%
(See "Optimal Tax") . This happened to quite a number of other civilizations (Late Roman Empire , Mayan , some Chinese dynasties , etc)

Why did this technology disappear ?
Well , it didn't . It went back to its roots , namely weaving .Weaving is known to be at least 30 000 years old , and probably much older . Looms using card-type controls have been known throughout history , culminating in the well-known Jacquerie looms in France during the start of the industrial revolution . Then Hollerith cards and computers .

The Babylonian system initially had a big relative advantage . But it had a major weakness : the format-templates . If these were lost or destroyed , all the other records were worthless . ( A major problem today . Huge volumes of electronic data are in formats that cannot be read anymore.)

Combine this with a dynastic system of conquerors , who deliberately destroyed the competitive advantage of their predecessors . The value of the system fell below survival level .

The technology led to centralized record-keeping and a small literate class (a plus as far as kings are concerned.) The tablets are big and bulky , expensive to store .
But , in competition with a phonetic scripts with millions of easily made and durable copies (see why paper is important ?) , where taxes and laws were written down , the error-rate of the cuneiform-system was much higher .
(A single copy is much more prone to destruction or corruption .)
It simply faded away .

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs .
The technology of record-keeping played a big role .
Moses handed down tablets , but Jews , Christians and Muslims are people of the Book .
Traders need to keep weight down . Lugging around 20 pounds of clay tablets on your little donkey instead of trade goods is a bit of a no-no .

Papyrus was a jealously guarded Pharaonic monopoly .

So how did the Romans do it ?
They did use clay tablets and slates for temporary work , tree-bark for throw-away letters , papyrus for more serious work , vellum for longer-lasting work , stone for serious ultra-long work .

This is what first drew the attention of Rome . They needed a cheap , plentiful supply of papyrus . In the Roman Republic days , they did not need Egyptian wheat , and had no means to transport it in bulk . So , they solved the problem by conquering Egypt .

When they looked around to see what else was worth looting , they saw the huge agricultural surpluses , a perennial source of danger (armies) .
It was Augustus who formed the neat little solution : give the Romans a peace dividend in free corn from Egypt , paid for by taxes on the provinces . This reduced the wealth in Egypt and the provinces for military or rebellious adventurism , while sucking in Italian peasants from non-viable little plots of ground . Their young men then become fodder for the legions. The rich landowners (latifundia) expand . A further plus was the huge stimulation to the shipping industry , which led to greatly increased trade and the Augustan economic miracle .

A really neat solution that lasted about two centuries .

All built on papyrus and multiple records .

Can you see why baked clay-tablets could not compete ?
The multiple records and large literate class performed the same function as the Babylonian IT system , but more error-resistant .

What about the Chinese ?
(See "Rome vs China)
They developed paper quite early and had multiple records , but the dynastic system meant that each new dynasty purged and rewrote previous records . The memory of the system then vested in a large literate class (Mandarins) , but this had a limited capacity . Still , they managed to stay ahead in innovation of Europe until the Mongols (the Yuan dynasty ) .
The Mongols impoverished China in two ways :
1.The killed a large percentage of the literate class , destroying the main memory .
2.Surplus accumulated wealth was expropriated . A very large percentage was sent to Tibet (the Lamaseries) , especially the libraries . (The Mongol aristocracy saw themselves as Tibetans . Chinggis traced his ancestry back to nobles on the Tibetan plateau ) . The Tibetans have a long history of extremely aggressive behaviour . Their monks are about as pacifistic as the Knights Templar . They had an empire encompassing the Mongolian steppes from about 600 AD to 1000 AD .
No wonder the Chinese see the Mongols as being cat's paws for the Tibetans .
The enmity goes as deep as the memory system of the surviving Mandarin families from the Yuan dynasty .

After the Mongols were expelled from China proper , the Ming dynasty gradually collapsed in exhaustion . The reserves of wealth and memory were exhausted . The literate class (Mandarins) could not regenerate fast enough .
They jealously clung to their now enhanced privileges .

The exploration fleets (Hu in 1421) were burnt . More importantly , eye-glasses were discouraged . (Chinese had invented concave lenses about 1100 AD) . This stifled all innovation and growth (which was the intention ) .

So , can you see how the technological ability to store and retrieve information , interacted with Chinese society to shape them ?

The paper cut is the most dangerous cut of all .


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