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How to Invent Everything

How to Invent Everything

A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
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a special note if you are stranded


between 200,000 bce and 50,000 bce and you are thinking, "the humans here are crazy


and i am definitely doomed forever"


Great news! You can actually be the most influential person in history!


BAs your careful study of the flowchart on the previous pages likely revealed, humans first evolved around the year 200,000 BCE. We call them "anatomically modern humans," and they mark the moment when humans with skeletons exactly the same as ours first appeared. As an experiment, we could put your skeleton beside that of an anatomically modern human from 200,000 years ago and it would be impossible to tell them apart.


We will not be performing this experiment, but we could.


But what's fascinating is despite the fact that modern human bodies were now available, nothing really changed. For more than 150,000 years, these humans behaved pretty much the same as any other protohuman species. And then, around the year 50,000 BCE, something happened: these anatomically modern humans suddenly started acting like us. They began to fish, create art, bury their dead, and decorate their bodies. They began to think abstractly.


Most important, they began to talk.


The technology of language-and it is a technology, it's something we've had to invent, and it took us over 100,000 years to do it-is the greatest gift we humans have ever given ourselves. You can still think without language-close your eyes and imagine a really cool hat and you've just done it-but it limits the kinds of thoughts you can have. Cool hats are easy to imagine, but the meaning of the sentence "Three weeks from tomorrow, have your oldest stepsister meet me on the southeast corner two blocks east from the first house we egged last Halloween" is extremely difficult to nail down without having concrete words for the concepts of time, place, numbers, relationships, and spooky holidays. And if you're struggling to express complex thoughts even in your own head, it's pretty evident that you won't be having those complex thoughts as often, or at all.


It was language that gave us the ability to imagine better, grander, more world-changing ideas than we otherwise could, and most important, it gave us the ability to store an idea not just in our own heads but inside the minds of others. With language, information can spread at the speed of sound, or, if you're using sign language instead of speaking, at the speed of light. Shared ideas lead to communities, which are the basis of culture and civilization, and which brings us to our first Civilization Pro Tip:


civilization pro tip: Language is the technology from which all others spread, and you've already got it for free.


This huge expanse of time-the 150,000 years between 200,000 BCE, when humans first appeared, to 50,000 BCE, when they finally started talking-is where you can have the single greatest effect on history. If you can help humans of this era become behaviorally modern as soon as they became anatomically modern-if you can teach them to talk-then you can give every civilization on the planet a 150,000-year head start.


It's probably worth the effort.


We once thought the change from anatomical to behavioral modernity was due to some physical change in our brains. Perhaps a random genetic mutation in one human-who suddenly found themselves able to communicate in ways no animal had done before-provided us with the huge advantage of a new capacity for abstract thought? However, the historical record doesn't support the idea of this great leap forward. The things we most associate with behavioral modernity-art, music, clever tools, burying the dead, making ourselves look cooler with jewelry and body paint-all appear before the breakthrough around 50,000 BCE, but in fits and starts, appearing locally and then disappearing. Much like the magic that rhetorical wizards have long revealed was actually inside us all along, so too have humans had the capacity for language. We just needed to unlock it.


The unique challenge facing you in this era is how to teach a language to people when the very idea of spoken language may be new to them. It's important to remember that most humans you encounter may not have language, but they'll still communicate with one another, through grunts and body language. All you need to do is move them from grunts to words, and don't worry: a complicated language like English with things like "subjunctive clauses" and "imperfect futures" (used here in the grammatical sense, not the time-travel sense) is not necessary, and you can get by with a simplified version of the language you already know, called "pidgin." You will also have better results if you focus on teaching children. The older humans are, the harder it is for them to learn languages, and fluent acquisition of a first language becomes much more challenging-if not impossible-after puberty.



civilization pro tip: Babies begin to focus on the noises used in language around them after about six months of age, so if you're inventing a language from scratch, you'll likely have more success incorporating whatever sounds the baby is already hearing from its parents.


Remember: evolution happens very slowly, and even 200,000 years ago the people you'll encounter are humans, just like you-indistinguishable at the biological level. They just need to be taught.


You can teach them.


And you will be remembered as a god.3


the five fundamental technologies


you need for your civilization


No, the list is not "a really good computer" five times.


BYour civilization is going to be founded on five technologies. Each of these technologies is information-based: once you have the idea of them, the rest pretty much follows. Because these technologies are conceptual rather than physical, they are extremely resilient: they are ideas, and ideas cannot be destroyed as long as members of your civilization survive (or at least some of their books do, see Section 10.11.2: Printing Presses).


While the five technologies listed on the following pages are all but invented once you understand the ideas behind them, they each nevertheless took an embarrassingly long time for us, as humans, to figure out.


Please carefully examine the following extremely embarrassing table.


Technology         First invented    When we could've invented it    Years spent not having this technology when we easily could have              This same time period, now expressed as how many colossal 500-year Roman Empires could've both risen and fallen in the huge expanse of time humanity spent sitting around not inventing this technology


Spoken language              50,000 BCE          200,000 BCE       150,000 years    300


Written language             3200 BCE             200,000 BCE       196,800 years    393


Non-sucky numbers       650 CE  200,000 BCE       200,650 years    401


The scientific method    1637 CE                200,000 BCE       201,637 years    403


Calorie surplus  10,500 BCE          200,000 BCE       189,500 years    379


Table 1: A table any human should be embarrassed to even be in the same room with.


As these are the absolute technological foundations of civilization, we will now go over the specifics of each. 3.1


spoken language


Listen to those voices in your head.


BBefore spoken language, humans communicated through grunts and body language. This allowed us to do the following things:


draw attention to ourselves


make noises or gestures expressing emotions like "fear" or "anger"




Unfortunately, these expressions are easily misunderstood. As an example, babies-famously pre-linguistic-are notoriously difficult to understand. A baby's cry could indicate "I'm sad" or "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" or "I'm frustrated" or several other emotions, but there's no way to tell what the child actually wants besides giving the baby different things to see if that satisfies it (a short-term solution) or, if you prefer a long-term solution, by gradually teaching the child a language over the course of the next several years until you can finally ask, "Hey, what was all that crying about when you were sixteen weeks old?"


In contrast, spoken language allows us to do the following things:


draw attention to ourselves


make noises or gestures precisely expressing nuanced emotions, like "fear of one day being trapped in the distant past," or "distinct anger at having now become trapped in the distant past"


cry (with words)


have ideas survive the death of their host


conceive of more complex ideas than we could otherwise express


transmit complicated sentiment with a reasonable confidence of minimal loss, corruption, or misunderstanding of intent


We tend to think of language as something natural, some property of the universe that we're exploiting. But it's not: we made it up, and it's arbitrary. However, while the sounds you choose, the order you put words in, and the ways words can interact and change one another are all up to you, there are some recurring patterns that you may want to keep in mind.


These "linguistic universals," as they're called, are found in every natural language on Earth, and while they're not mandatory-people can and have constructed artificial languages that don't use them-they may make it easier for people to use your new language. Please commit the following table to memory:


Universal property          Description of this property         Example phrases using this property       A grim vision into a dystopian world where this property does not exist


Pronouns exist in all natural languages.  Pronouns are words that let us refer to something without repeating the name of that thing.         I rented the FC3000ª time machine. It is as reliable as it is well designed, and I am happy to recommend it to everyone without reservation. I rented the FC3000ª time machine. The FC3000ª time machine is as reliable as the FC3000ª time machine is well designed, and I am happy to recommend the FC3000ª time machine to everyone without reservation.


No "thbbbth" sounds.    Spoken languages are built from the noises our bodies can make, but no natural language uses the "blow a raspberry" tongue-out-of-the-mouth thbbbth sound.    To be, or not to be: that is the question. To thbbbth, or not to thbbbth: that is the questhbbbbbbbttbbbbth.


If the language has a word for "feet," it also has a word for "hands," and if it has a word for "toes," it also has a word for "fingers."      Hands are generally more useful to most humans than feet, so if we've reached a point where we're naming body parts and gotten around to naming our feet, we've definitely already named our hands too.               I have ten toes and ten fingers. Yes, Chad, I know technically I only have eight fingers. Chad, yes, I know thumbs aren't fingers. Everyone knows, I was just . . . Chad. Chad. Chad, listen to me. See, Chad, this is why we don't hang out anymore.            I have ten toes and ten, uh . . . extra-bendy upper toes? Yes, Chad, I know two of my extra-bendy upper toes are opposable and therefore should be classified differently. Chad, listen to me. Chad. Chad. I'm doing the best with the words I've got, Chad.


All languages have vowels.          Vowels are sounds produced with an open mouth and often form the core of a syllable. For example, "cat" uses a as a vowel and c and t as consonants. It's hard to speak without vowels.            Chad, can we please talk about something else? Anything, Chad. Please.             Thhhbbbttth


Universal property          Description of this property         Example phrases using this property       A grim vision into a dystopian world where this property does not exist


All languages

have verbs.         Verbs are action words, which allow us to talk about things happening to other things. Since things tend to happen a lot on Earth, they are useful words to keep around.      The quick brown fox jumps over the reliable FC3000ª time machine and is happy to recommend it without reservation.            The quick brown fox. The reliable FC3000ª time machine. Happy without reservation.


All languages

have nouns.       Nouns are people, places, or things. They are objects or ideas in the world. Since there are a lot of those on Earth, they're useful to keep around too.            The quick brown fox jumps over the reliable FC3000ª time machine and is happy to recommend it without reservation.        The quick brown. Jumps. Reliable. Is happy to recommend.


Table 2: One advantage of being trapped in the past is you will have finally escaped Chad.


Which language you choose to build your civilization on is a matter of personal preference, and there are no wrong answers here. But while you have your choice of languages to build your civilization on, this also means you have the opportunity to fix these languages. Don't like English's pronoun system or French's insistence on giving every object in the universe its own entirely imaginary gender? Well, now's your chance to fix them forever.


Spoken languages solve a lot of problems with very few downsides, and they're a technology you're already carrying around in your head. However, they still share one tremendous vulnerability: they rely on human beings to transmit information. If a group of humans dies together, so too do their ideas. You can do better.


You are about to.




written language


The technology that made the spelling mistake possible.


BWhile the spoken word is great, it still suffers from significant limitations. It frees ideas from their original host, but it allows ideas to be transmitted only as far as the speaker can travel, or can shout, or can travel while shouting. Most critically, it depends on an unbroken chain of humanity for ideas to survive. Break this chain even once, and all information in it is lost forever.


Writing solves this problem. It allows ideas to become resilient, stronger than our fragile human bodies, which tend to get old and die all the time. It allows ideas to become fixed, immune to changing memories and historical revision. It allows ideas to be broadcast, reaching a much larger audience than could ever listen to your spoken words. Writing even allows ideas to survive not only when their original host has died, not only when everyone who has ever heard them has died, but even when everyone who has ever spoken their language has died too: the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs being the greatest example of this. Most incredibly, writing allows information to be shipped around the world with no more difficulty or expense than you'd encounter shipping grain: less, actually, since books don't go bad nearly as quickly. Despite its huge advantages, humans have spent most of their time on Earth-over 98 percent of it-stumbling around without this technology.


Like spoken language, which written language you choose to base your civilization around is not particularly important, but we do recommend (assuming you are multilingual or feeling ambitious) choosing a language that is not English. That prevents you from accidentally teaching others how to read this text, which may be something worth considering, especially since your current temporal circumstances have conspired to make this book the most insanely valuable and dangerous item on the planet.


Though the idea behind writing is simple-store invisible noises by transforming them into visible shapes-the invention of writing was actually an incredibly difficult thing for humans to do. It's so difficult, in fact, that across all of human history, it has happened a grand total of two times:


in Egypt and Sumer around 3200 BCE.


in Mesoamerica between 900 and 600 BCE.


Writing shows up in other locations, such as China in 1200 BCE, but this is a result of the Egyptians culturally contaminating the Chinese. Similarly, Egyptian and Sumerian script developed at very close to the same time, and while visually quite distinct, they share many of the same influences. One of these cultures invented writing while the other just lifted the idea, probably after seeing what a superuseful invention it was.


There are two other times when writing may have been invented: in India around 2600 BCE, and on Easter Island after 1200 CE but before 1864 CE. (We say "may" because this is one of several historical mysteries still unresolved. Confirmation could easily be obtained with an incident-free visit to the times and places in question, but for some reason most time travelers have historically been more interested in "experiencing the colossal breadth of human experience" rather than "settling obscure linguistic debates by running controlled temporal observation with an eye to publishing peer-reviewed research.")


The older Indian script (called "Indus") is pictographic and has never been deciphered. Most messages written in Indus script are short (just five characters) which does not suggest an actual language, but rather simpler pictograms or ideograms. What are pictograms and ideograms? We're very glad you asked:


Pictograms are when an item is represented by a picture of that thing: an image of fire, for example, means "fire." Along similar lines, the little icon of an envelope on the latest mass-market portable music player you purchased represents "email." When used in protowriting, pictograms can function as a memory aid to help remember an event or story, or simply as decoration.


Ideograms are when a collection of ideas are represented by a single picture: an image of a water drop could represent rain, but also tears or sadness. An image of sunglasses could represent extremely cool sunglasses, but also sunlight, fashion, or popularity. An image of a peach shaped so it looks like buttocks could represent either peaches, buttocks, or any number of activities humans have discovered they can perform with either.


It's important to note that neither pictograms nor ideograms are language, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between them and their meaning. Pictograms and ideograms are interpreted rather than read. As an example, consider the following images:


There are several different ways to interpret those images. If you know the story they're trying to tell, these pictures can remind you of it, but if you don't, you will have to make lots of assumptions. Perhaps it is the story of a very cool woman eating a peach. Perhaps it is the tale a regular woman eating a very cool peach. We will never know.


In contrast, the sentence "Cynthia waved, her hair catching in the warm ocean breeze, and in her sunglasses I saw reflected a horrible, monstrous giant peach: it was my body, forever transformed by those hateful scientists I'd once cut off in traffic" has a meaning that's much more clearly defined. While there is ambiguity in any language, the non-ideographic version has a much more particular and specific meaning than the alternative.

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