Last year, humans created more data than all of history before that. Instagram posts and bank transactions travel around the world at light speed. Infinite knowledge is just one click away. Life is digital. Digital is data. And it all began 9000 years ago with a Mesopotamian farmer stamping a stone seal into wet clay.
Ancient Mesopotamia is widely considered as the cradle of western civilization. Over a span of thousands of years, local farming communities evolved to give birth to urban societies. Trading routes for copper and obsidian covered hundreds of miles. Some 50.000 people lived in Uruk, the world’s first city. This growth in economic and social complexity was fueled by inventions like the wheel, law, mathematics and most importantly script, ca. 3200 BC.
As early trading developed, farmers and traders began to use small seals to mark food or other commodities that were kept in straw baskets or stone containers. Seal stamps were used as records of identity, ownership and material transactions. As administration became more and more complex, this became the basis of numerical tablets, and eventually gave birth to cuneiform script, the world’s first writing. Interestingly, with the birth of the Internet, stamping has made a digital comeback with us tagging posts and pics.
Development also affected social structures. The identity of glyph seals gradually started to take on a meaning of social coherence, and subscription to groups and beliefs. This evolved to the elaborate prints of Assyrian and Babylonian cylinder seals, real objects of art as the ultimate expression of individual identity and of social status. Surprisingly, modern hashtags have recovered this social statement of “I also subscribe to this idea or trend”.
Where digital writing gave birth to hashtags, Mesopotamian stamps gave birth to writing. These small, inconspicuous objects have played a pivotal role in the birth of modern societies. Glyph seals were designed to be used, and worn to be seen as tokens of status and belief.