Tablets, Then and Now

Of course we love the Internet. Our DNA made it so.

Tablets, Then and Now

Of course we love the Internet. Our DNA made it so.

Have you noticed how Internet speeds never seem to be enough? You get that plan upgrade, or your provider starts offering better service, but in a few months or years you once again find yourself waiting for things to load.

Today, it's not just you which needs connectivity, it could also be your CCTV setup, your burglar alarm, or your smart fridge. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution foresees a world of smart devices and an "Internet of Things". 5G is only one in a long line of buzzwords, and the amount of money spent annually is expected only to rise—leaping up by about 60% in the case of one European country, according to a McKinsey analysis.

Connecting everything to the Internet, big challenge for many IT startups, is not just about a new business plan trying to make it in the wild market. If you zoom out a bit, it's about evolution of the human species.

Technology’s humble beginnings go back to about 2.6 million years ago, when human-like species in East Africa made and used the first sharp-edged stone tools in order to kill and skin animals. In the ages that followed, we've been through hammer-stones, hand-axes, wooden spears; through tools made of bone, ivory, antler, and finally bronze. These tools allowed human-like species to protect themselves, hunt and eat, while in the background the natural process of evolution was taking its course.

Through the centuries that followed, human’s tool-making ability continued to evolve. With the combined help of mathematical and scientific theory, more and more sophisticated tools were created. Caves and forests were replaced with man-made dwellings; bigger cities came into view as human civilisation flourished.

But it wasn't just about making life easier. As humans spread out across wider areas, they needed to find ways to keep their communication going.

Connectivity, the state of being connected or interconnected, appeared in our physical reality hundreds of years ago and co-evolved with our communication tools since then.

Its strongest foundations lie 500,000 years ago, with the rise of proto-speech. Using sounds from their mouths, humans could communicate ideas from their head to that of another—a primitive vocal telepathy! It didn't stop there: cave paintings could preserve memories longer than transient words, if in a less detailed form.

We don't know when the next step happened, but evidence lies in a Sumerian tablet from 4,200 years ago, found in modern-day Iraq. A small clay object the size of a thumb, it contains six lines in cueniform script, a kind of drawing where words have sound and meaning. Tablets of that time were very functional, as a translation of this one will tell you:

18 jars of pig fat—Balli.
4 jars of pig fat—Nimgir-ab-lah.
Fat dispensed, the city of Zabala.
Ab-kid-kid, the scribe.
4th year 10th month.

Memories are fickle, which is why writing things down in a diary helps you remember your life—and why the earliest writing consisted of important, practical things.

Technology makes progress in leaps and starts. By the Industrial Revolution, there was a rapid movement away from the slow and costly production of handmade tools and towards the use of machines and inanimate power. The muscles of human and animal labour made way for smokey but efficient engines driven by coal and steam.

In less than a century, technology changed again. We filled our new modern life with electricity, electrical devices, and cars.

If technology went ahead, connection wasn't far behind. The radio, Internet, personal computers, electronic devices and Wi-Fi, produced in parallel every kind of tool for our tool-men to could fix everything. Now, after building a plethora of tools for years, we are entering a new era trying to connect everything to the Internet.

The 4,200-year-old Sumerian tablet was of course recording what happened to a certain supply of pig fat. Today, combined with other tablets, it helps us to reconstruct what a certain government office functioned like, over four thousand years ago. We know for instance that Balli was some sort of official in charge of various kinds of oils—including almond oil, butter, sesame oil, and, of course, pig fat.

This says something of the power of communication tools. Even we, many thousands of years later, can imbibe preserved memories and information that would otherwise have been lost.

Today's tablets are a bit more fickle. Rather than being engraved in clay, their information is stored on magnetic memory and accessed through systems like Android and iOS. A single tablet can hold vastly more information—but it doesn't last as long. Wait a thousand years, and even if an old tablet miraculously retains its memory, its data will likely be locked away through incompatible software formats.

Nature has a process by which a group of previously independent parts become stably integrated—and connected—into a new, indivisible evolutionary unit. This process requires the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviours, during division of labour and reorganisation of habits.

Put the matter another way, at the core of connectivity is cooperation and altruism—working and remembering together to make our system more efficient, more intelligent, and having better chances of surviving.

Interestingly, that's exactly what happened with human civilisation as well.

Throughout history, connectivity and prosperity have been intrinsically linked. From early road systems to railroads and telephone lines, wherever infrastructure has existed to connect people, communities have thrived. Before the Internet, connectivity in our world moved slower, but we still found ways—like the message-carrying war pigeon, a method of communication that it is likely as old as the ancient Persians.

Today, with the advent of Internet, connectivity is moving faster and faster. From the simple text messages of yore, carried by 2G networks in 1991, the world now looks forward to high-speed 5G networks, full-fibre broadband, and, for remote places, satellite Internet technology. Communicating, and communicating fast, has become more important than ever.

This, then, is where today's tablets shine. The tablets of old broadcast their ideas through time: there will be people reading them even now, or a thousand years from now. Today's tablets, on the other hand, broadcast through space. The lifespan of their messages is fleetingly short—but in that fleeting moment, a message can reach out to thousands or millions of people.

That ability is important, because it's quite literally transformed the world. Internet connectivity has supercharged global connectivity and has transformed the way people connect to each other, becoming vital to the way businesses organize themselves and sell their products and services.

In the other words, Internet connectivity has proven to be a profound enabler of social change and economic growth, empowering people and businesses to operate more efficiently and with wider reach.

That first tool ever made — around 2.6 millions years ago — marked and accelerated human’s “natural intelligence” process, inasmuch human-like species and tools started to “co-evolve” in response to their changing environment.

In that moment, a never-ending symbiotic relationship began between those two that would eventually give birth after millions of years to the “machine intelligence” process. We emerged as humans by making tools and “learning” from our tools, and now we are allowing our tools “to learn” from us.

But this moment was only the mirror of a similar moment 600 million years before, when groups of cells connected to each other, leading to more intelligent organisms with a nervous system.

Nature has told how to build tools in order to survive, connect with each other and continue to evolve. And those same instructions seem to be now telling us that, in order to continue to evolve, we have to connect to the Internet every single thing in our planet.

Internet connectivity—or something like it—has always been encoded in the DNA.