How Paper Shaped Civilization

The material gave rise to currency, bureaucracy, and modern communication—and caused panic over technological change.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

How would Plato have used Twitter? To tell the world what he just ate for lunch? To sound off about the Emmys? To scold Kim Kardashian?

Probably not. But he may have left one clue: “Wise men speak because they have something to say,” declares a quote that’s often—though probably falsely—attributed to him. “Fools because they have to say something.” The anonymous person who snagged the @Plato Twitter handle eight years ago took these words to heart and has never tweeted anything. So far, it’s been a brilliant performance.

There’s a deeper question here. Beyond tweeting, how would Plato have responded to modern changes in the way humans communicate? During his own time, people increasingly recorded their thoughts and experiences in writing, and he worried that written language reduced our reliance on memory. The tool made us less human, even mechanical, he argued, because once something was jotted down, it no longer came from within a person. It was less authentic, and therefore less true.

Then again, Plato expressed this concern in Phaedrus, his dialogue that most famously grapples with the issue, by writing it down.

Plato’s complicated relationship with writing—or really, with the seismic shifts of technological change—forms the heart of an impressive new book, Paper: Paging Through History. Mark Kurlansky, the author, has written two previous books, Salt and Cod, that use the condensed histories of their respective subjects to explore the wider global histories of empire and capitalism. Here again he picks up a seemingly mundane commodity to examine a wider phenomenon: historical attitudes toward disruptive technologies. His question: how do humans absorb and disseminate information? His answer helps reveal the evolution, both politically and economically, of how the world has come to be organized.

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Over centuries,  writing moved across more than a dozen materials. Clay tablets dominated for three thousand years—“a considerably longer period than the reign of paper up until now,” Kurlansky writes—because they had the advantage of being inexpensive, readily available, and easy to use. But the tablets’ lack of portability was a problem. People turned to papyrus, the reedy plant found in marshy areas, but that disintegrated easily, and much of the world’s supply was too spindly for making high-quality writing sheets. Wax was one alternative, but it was best for disposable writing, so parchment was next in line, made by scraping and processing animal skins. As many as two hundred animals were needed to make a single book.

“As with all new inventions, some saw parchment as the way of the future and others disdained it,” Kurlansky writes. The concerns were political as much as economic. Parchment was more durable than papyrus and immune to Egyptian papyrus monopolies, but it was still relatively expensive and labor-intensive to produce. Rulers also fretted how rising literacy and access to new ideas might affect their populations. “A new way of thinking was emerging,” Kurlansky writes, and it needed to be recorded in a new way. “Something as disposable as wax, as light as leaves, as cheap as clay, and as durable as parchment was needed.”

Nobody knows the exact origins of paper. “It seems highly improbable that some lone genius stumbled upon the idea by him- or herself,” Kurlansky writes. Contemporary scholars suspect the Chinese invented the general papermaking process of breaking down cellulose fibers and randomly weaving them together, but the finer points of this story are murky. Perhaps because great stories work better with a central hero, Chinese schoolchildren are told that paper was invented in 105 C.E. by a eunuch in the Han court named Cai Lun. Demand for writing material surged during the Han era, which is when China’s first comprehensive national histories were produced, when classic works that had been destroyed by previous dynasties were reissued, and when the first official version of Confucius’s teachings were recorded.

Over time, various Chinese innovations helped paper become stronger, thinner, and cheaper to produce. These innovations spread, particularly to an Islamic world enjoying its own great cultural ferment by the ninth century. “The Qur’an says that good Muslims should seek knowledge,” Kurlansky writes, “and they did so passionately and with a great deal of ink and paper.” (Arab words for paper, such as kaghid and qirtas—a word used in the Qur’an—are thought to be of Chinese origin.) Paper-loving Muslims helped spread mathematics, astronomy, medicine, engineering, agriculture, and literature to other parts of the world, including the West.

But Europe lagged behind. It’s unclear why the continent used parchment for so long, but like all areas that that were slower to adopt paper, this hindered its advancement. Up until the thirteenth century, many kings and princes were still illiterate. The greatest argument for why Europeans eventually switched to paper is because it was cheap. They first used it to make better Bibles, then quickly learned to rely on it for other obsessions, like money and banking. Their various empires expanded as a result, and around the thirteenth century, Europeans began learning more about the advancements of other cultures. Europe “had become a different place,” Kurlansky writes. “One discovery rolled in on the heels of another, which rolled in on the heels of yet another.”

There were limits to this spread of knowledge. Creating books was labor-intensive; they were hand-printed and dictated to scribes. This made them expensive, a problem that was compounded by a tendency to dress them up with heavy jeweled covers. The fourteenth-century Italian scholar Petrarch almost had his leg amputated after dropping one of these books on it.

Still, the demand for books only grew. By the fourteenth century, papermaking was a common industrial activity in Europe, which gave rise to printing, another great innovation that fueled the engines of human civilization—religion, business, art, and empire—for centuries to come. As Kurlansky notes, the greatest single change in Europe during the centuries leading into the Renaissance were “the bustling of intellectual life coming out of the monasteries and into the universities and other places accessible to the general population.”

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Like Plato, however, not everyone embraced this revolution.

Kurlansky’s telling of this history, which is swift, crisp, and deft at navigating around the rabbit holes that could easily drown a story like this in caveats, features a major subplot: people complaining about change. “As with every other new technology, there were those who were disdainful,” he writes, “some who thought it was barbarism, some who thought it was the end of civilization, and some who thought it was a threat to their jobs.”

As far back as the eighth-century, Chinese poet Tu Fu groused that more paper led to more writing, which created more bureaucracy. Later, because books at first were rare and thereby held a unique power, upstart printers with the ability to produce them en masse were suspected of harboring treacherous political agendas; when Johann Fust, an associate of Johannes Gutenberg, went to Paris to sell books, he was chased out of town as an agent of the devil. Scribes saw their jobs threatened when books took off, and many of the aristocrats who hired them saw printed alternatives as sleazy imitations. They feared that a new style would completely overtake the old.

But moveable type didn’t suddenly eliminate handwritten books; many people still preferred them, just as many people today still prefer printed books to cheaper digital alternatives, or hand tailored clothing to something made in a factory. These kinds of worries often represent a commonly held fallacy about technology: Once a new way is invented it is unstoppable. Moreover, Kurlansky writes, “society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it.” Against Tu Fu’s concern, writing did not create Chinese bureaucracy, he explains; bureaucracy prompted the creation of writing. “As Chinese society evolved and became more complex, it required writing, which would lead to the search for better writing material.”

Kurlansky illustrates his points with journalism, an industry whose fate is tied to the history of paper more than any other. America’s first great press baron, Benjamin Franklin, not only published newspapers but also had an interest in thirteen paper mills. In 1753, when Franklin and a colleague were jointly named deputy postmaster general, inter-colony correspondence increased, which was good for the newspaper trade. In the next decades, cheaper paper meant a transition from broadsides to pamphlets, which were longer and more reflective. This came just in time to enable writers like Thomas Paine, in the years before the American Revolution, to bring works like Common Sense to regular citizens rather than just the intelligentsia, spreading new kinds of political thought. For the next two centuries, American newspapers chugged along, evolving in response to outside competition from radio, film, and television.

Today, however, newspapers struggle as readers move toward digital platforms. The threat isn’t that people don’t want to read them anymore, Kurlansky writes, “it is that they were built from their beginnings on an economic model that is no longer working.” In the old model, the entirety of a newspaper’s information was bundled together with its advertising, creating economies of scale that could better accommodate meatier journalism (better researched, time-consuming to produce). Now, new digital platforms are organized around an atomized model where advertising is more closely linked with individual pieces. Coupled with the Internet’s infinite space—where fewer barriers guard against the clutter of lowest-common-denominator “content”—this creates a format that values quantity over quality.

It’s not technology that’s to blame for this current state. As Kurlansky writes, it’s merely a response to our demands: faster, cheaper, and “an innate desire for connection.” These demands have delivered us to today, a rare place where the challenge now isn’t a lack of information, but perhaps too much of it. Critics of this state of affairs shouldn’t be dismissed as luddites, as they sometimes are—many of their complaints are valid.

Not to fret, Kurlansky assures us. The answer to this dilemma inevitably will be found with some new innovation—perhaps better filters, more reliable gatekeepers, or workable economic models. “Because change and the resistance to change,” he writes, “always work hand in hand.”