The banality of note-taking

A Roman fresco from Herculaneum showing a wax tablet in the middle

I think most of us have an unrecognised body bias in favour of the lap and against the palm of the hand. Otherwise, how would we account for the resilience of laptops and the utter extinction of palmtops?

Do you even remember palmtops? I used to have one in the late 90s. It was a PalmPilot 5000 and it was great for taking notes. Unlike the smartphones of late, the palmtops of the 90s and early 2000s did justice to their name: they were small enough to hold in your palm. Smartphones, on the other hand, have long ceased to be co-extensive with their name, as the ‘phone’ is the last feature you expect in your latest iPhone or Samsung.

The ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and the Middle East were the first to develop efficient note-taking, which is note-taking on the run. From Iraq to Spain, wax tablets were as widespread then as smartphones are now. They were handheld and portable, which made them vehicles of cultural, political and economic growth.

Before moveable type, there was moveable script, portable note-taking, thanks to the brilliant technology of the wax tablet. Cultures evolved, civilisations rose, societies grew, not simply because writing assumed an increasingly larger role, but also because writing grew less sedentary. The disparity between the heavy, time-consuming technology of writing with ink and the convenient, almost effortless use of wax tablets insured the latter’s survival through the ages. The palmtop, smartphone and the ironically-named digital ‘tablet’ owe their existence to the wax tablets of Mesopotamia and ancient Rome.

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