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The Evolution of Writing: Cave Paintings to ChatGPT

by Suli Adams Mankind has acknowledged the importance of writing for tens of thousands of years. In ancient times we find engraved or painted marks on the walls of human dwellings and portable objects. Humans developed writing to communicate across time and space, as they traded, migrated and conquered. From its first use for counting and naming things and communicating beyond the grave, humans have altered and enriched writing to reflect their complicated needs and desires. Writing systems seem to have developed independently four times in human history. First in Mesopotamia (Present day Iraq), then Egypt, then China and later in the Mesoamerica (southern Mexico to Costa Rica). There are places such as the Indus River valley (Pakistan and northwest India) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) where the writings remain undeciphered. Scholars agree the earliest form of writing appeared 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. It has been suggested that writing grew from a counting system of clay tokens used to record transactions of goods. Tokens that were spheres, cones and discs stood for measurement of grain, while cylinders stood for livestock. This counting system was used from 7500BC across the Mediterranean coast to the Persian Gulf. Eventually the simple tokens were replaced by signs made by their impressions onto clay balls or tablets. More complex tokens could not be distinguished, so their shape and markings were drawn directly onto the surface of the clay ball or tablet with a cut reed. 2900 BC onwards, Mesopotamia appears to have begun accounts keeping of transactions with registered names. Names would have contained complicated sounds that were not represented in the then current writing system. Therefore required an expanded writing system to include value as well as sound. Early pictorial signs were gradually substituted by a complex system of characters representing the sounds of the Sumerian language. From 2900 BC these were impressed in wet clay with a reed stylus, making wedge shaped marks known as cuneiform. In time the signs were simplified, and the connection between the pictograms and the original object was lost. Symbols initially read top to bottom and later, came to be read left to right. The symbols had to be realigned 90 degrees anticlockwise to accommodate this change. In time as the empire grew, from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf, 15 languages would use cuneiform inspired characters. Rock carved signs, discovered at EL-Khawy in Egypt show features similar to early hieroglyphics. 3200 BC onwards Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared on small ivory tablets used as labels for grave goods. Writing in ink using reed brushes and pens was first found in Egypt. This ink writing came to be known as hieratic in Greek, whilst carved and painted on monuments are called hieroglyphs. Over four centuries the hieroglyphs and hieratic developed a full range of characters, symbols and phonetic component representing combinations of sounds. It is from this Egyptian writing that the alphabet developed from 1850 BC onwards. The earliest examples of writing in china were found south of Beijing, where characters were carved into the surface of shoulder blades of oxen bones and turtle plastrons. Records show diverse topics such as crop rotation, warfare, childbirth and even toothache. As many as 4,500 different symbols have been discovered many of which can be identified having developed into Chinese characters still in use today, however the majority of the characters remain undeciphered. The pictographic characters became more abstract as the written vocabulary expanded, more compound forms of characters developed. The extent and complexity of pre-colonial Mesoamerican writing is not known, since the majority of the material that survived into the 16th century were burned by the Spanish conquistadors. Only four Mayan books survived from the pre-colonial period and less than twenty from the entire region which incudes the Maya, Mixtecs and Aztecs and earlier civilizations of the Olmec and Zapotecs. There are caves and structures such as pyramids around the world with drawings and writings, leaving behind tales of lifestyle, lives lived, spirituality, beliefs and devastations. The discovery of these drawings and writings by future generations, has made the ancient civilizations around the world immortal. Counting, naming and communication beyond the grave are some of the most important reasons why humans began to write. Writing in Mesopotamia evolved from accounting to including names to a more elaborate way of recording funerary rites. Across human traditions the reasons for writing remain similar, although it varies in context and function. Writing has always evolved in response to human needs and fashions, as it spread to different areas of life. It has been adopted and embedded in law, the marketplace, learning, religion, storytelling, entertainment and politics. While working, my writing was technical. I wrote to document research findings, results of investigations, audit reports, lessons learned reports and regulatory correspondence amongst others. These report are filed as permanent records, but in this context, how long is permanent? Now in retirement I acknowledge the importance of writing for a purpose. Writing makes our thinking and learning visible and permanent. Writing assists us in explaining and refining our ideas to others and ourselves. It preserves our ideas and memories and it helps us understand ourselves and perhaps, provide healing. In my community, I wrote articles for the local newspaper to raise awareness in the hopes of enhancing cultural diversity. I wrote of my personal story of being raised in Africa, the story of immigration, its challenges and settlement. Other members of the community followed suit with their stories in hopes of raising awareness and creating a welcoming harmonious community that is inclusive and diverse. Locally, this has been successful. Local businesses appreciate diversity and are more compassionate and inclusive. The city actively promotes and funds cultural activities and local politicians make a marked presence. Collectively this has gained media attention locally and regionally. One of my articles for the local newspaper, caught the attention of Fanoos magazine, and brought this opportunity to express my thoughts, raise cultural awareness and share learnings. More recently, I had the opportunity to submit an article, for a book to be published next year. I only had a week before the deadline for submission. The book will consist of 25 articles by Canadians who have visited their ( or their parents) birth countries and their thoughts. The editors reviewed a 100+ submissions, mine was not selected. However, the experience was very thought provoking. Reflecting about my past, growing up in Africa, having to leave family, friends, culture and possessions behind, has changed me. I never really had time to reflect on this before, I was too busy settling into my new life. I learnt a lot about myself, and understand better who I am. It is an article that will help my granddaughter understand the life of her grandmother. Writing has evolved from inscribing on damp clay in Mesopotamia, to carving on bones in ancient china, to inscribing on wax tablets by Greeks and Romans, to ink via Egypt across Asia. From reeds to quills to metal pens. From calligraphy to printing and typing to the apple computer to Chatbots! Will we differentiate between art forms such as calligraphy and a functional tool such as AI? Will we loose our creativity? Will handwriting be a lost art? New technologies deliver in miraculous ways the essence of human talent. While digital efficiency can have marvelled benefits, human input should not be underestimated. Studies have also shown that taking hand written notes during lectures has greater brain activation, and a positive impact on learning. The relationship should evolve to be symbiotic. Technology is changing how we live our lives today and we depend on it. For example we now rely on our vehicles for lane change assist, backup cameras, some vehicles even park themselves, and then there is the driverless vehicles. Will technology also change how we write to express, inform, persuade, entertain and explain ourselves ? ChatGPTis being used to write impressive resumes, articles, memos and other documents. At this time ChatGPT cannot be used as an author with active source of information. It relies on content from the internet, which may or may not be fully accurate. GPT 4 is limited by its training data, and does not have access to the most recent data. Since it depends on available data from internet sources, there are no references or citations. How does it handle conflicting data or opinions versus facts? Last November, ChatGPT and AI chat bot was released to the general public. This now enables students to generate a passable paper on any topic, the potential for cheating becomes immense. Some universities in France have banned ChatGPT, Australia on the other hand has guidelines for using ChatGPT, University of Toronto, Canada advises instructors to specify which digital tools are allowed for assignments but also warns instructors against using unapproved AI tools to evaluate student work. Irina Dumitrescu has stated that teachers will use AI to come up with assignments, students will use AI to do them, and AI will grade the result, at which point everyone can leave education to the bots and go for coffee. Chatbots learn by example, trained on text from the internet, they are like supercharged autocorrect, determining what word or phrase is most likely next. Large language models don't think. They make interpretations based on the material fed into them, which is why it is so error prone at present. What ChatGPT cannot find it apparently makes up. Users have noticed it will churn out material with facts and references that sound plausible but can be made up. Without appropriate filters, AI can reproduce descriptions of illegal, racial and violent activities. In time, the training data will improve and appropriate filters will be used. However, will it be able to express experiences with emotions? Writings that impact us the most are those that resonate our emotions. Will this new technology develop to that level? Will it influence our decision making process? Will it be able to write a dancers memoir, expressing the emotions through trials and disappointments and successes? Through writing, we learn how to think. At every step of the process, a writer has to make decisions about what to focus on and what to leave out. Each choice opens new opportunities and closes off others. This decision making process can produce a fresh way of expressing an idea, a surprising thought worth pursuing, sometimes this struggle helps discover thoughts buried but now articulating Drafting, shaping, and revising a text not only changes the text but may change the writer. This was my experience in writing this article. I started with the intention of writing about my write ups, but it evolved into the history and the future of writing. If humans become reliant on AI technology, will we still write? What type of legend will we leave behind for future generations? Will GPT writings leave a legend on our behalf? Will that be the modern equivalent of cave paintings and writings? Will it leave behind tales of lifestyle, lives lived, spirituality, beliefs and devastations as we experience it or will the history of our time be depicted as interpreted and documented by AI? In the meantime I will continue to write for Fanoos without a Chatbot, for now. Resources: Ewan Clayton 2019 British Library’s Exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, Irina Dumitrescu 2023 Will ChatGPT kill the Student Essay? Universities Aren’t Ready for the Answer, WALRUS


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