Book Summaries History

Chapter 7: Memory Overload (Sapiens)

Football is a sport that children seem to play quite easily, but there is no football gene that they inherited. They can only play because they learned the rules of the game and they live in a place where other children have also learned these rules.

All social systems, financial and legal, are based on the same principle – that of a shared understanding of information, but unlike football, some types of information are very difficult to learn.

Our brains, while are excellent at retaining some kinds of information is profoundly limited. It can remember who is trustworthy and which fruits are edible, but it cannot keep track of all the transactions that occur within an empire. It’s capacity is limited.

And since humans die, all the information we have in our brains will die with us. Finally, our brains can only store certain types of information. We cannot remember large volumes of complex mathematical data. We may remember simple numbers, but beyond a certain point, we need to write things down.

The Sumerians were the first to invent a system that contained mathematical data to keep track of transactions – this system was the first known use of language known to us. Thus language was first invented for bookkeeping. We learned to write not for poetry or philosophy but for accounting for debts and property ownership.

Laws were also passed down in written form when the language of numbers gradually added more symbols to represent more things and became more complex.

Arab numerals (they were invented by Indians but the Arabs take the credit for invading India and discovering the usefulness of numbers in broader contexts) were then invented that made mathematics more efficient and important.

Then complex ideas about the world such as gravity were represented by equations, and these could only be understood by a small number of experts in the world. They allowed us to better manipulate our environment.

Finally, we designed computers to represent all information through 0’s and 1’s. But this is nowhere near the end of the story. AI is advancing at a rapid rate. There’s no telling what the future of information processing looks like. 

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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