|Early cuneiform, ca. 3000 BC|
Office supplies are humdrum. Objects around the office seem to subsist on a mundane plane of existence, interrupting our consciousness only when they are required for some necessary but fundamentally dull task. Scribbling on a Post-it Note, loading Paper into your printer, buying a multipack of biros – what could be more everyday?
But consider, for a moment, the genesis of this ultra-familiar, metaphorically grey miscellany. Why do these things constitute so much of the physical fabric of the working lives of so many?
The reason why pens, Paper and other desktop inventions occupy such a dominant position in our culture is that civilisation itself is predicated on systems of writing. While spoken language was universal to all human societies, it is only with the advent of writing that, collectively, societies were able to make the agrarian, civil, technological and cultural leaps that we associate with Civilisation’s dawn. Historians agree that writing emerged not simply to record speech but to facilitate and organise taxation, book-keeping, property ownership.
Fast forward to today and writing remains central to modern rule, bureaucracy, citizenship, education, work, play, even our very identities. Plus the rest. Information technology has displaced much hardware and hard copy, but the centrality of writing systems to our existence remains unbudging. Writing outlives the speech acts of mortals and records birth, marriages, deaths, and bank accounts. We write, therefore we are.
So next time you scribble on a Post-it, consider the connection between what you are doing with a Sumerian accountant etching cuneiform into a clay tablet or an Ancient Egyptian bureaucrat writing on papyrus with a reed pen.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be putting the seemingly mundane world of office supplies into historical context to help demonstrate that civilisation is inconceivable without them.