Of course, humans once lived without any concept of time at all. In this early, hunter-gatherer existence, information was exchanged physically, either orally or with gestures, in person. People lived in an eternal present, without any notion of before or after, much less history or progress. Things just were. The passage of time was not recorded or measured, but rather experienced in its various cycles. Older, wiser people and tribes became aware not just of the cycles of day and night, but of the moon and even the seasons. Since farming hadn’t yet been invented, however, seasons were not to be anticipated or exploited. Beyond gathering a few nuts as it got cooler, there was little we could do to shift or store time; the changes around us were simply enjoyed or endured.
Many religions and mythologies look back longingly on this prehistoric timelessness as a golden age, or Eden. Humanity is seen as a fetus in the womb, at one with Mother Nature. False notions of a prehistoric noble savage aside, there is at least some truth to the idea that people lacked the capacity to distinguish themselves from nature, animals, and one another. While living so completely at the mercy of nature was fraught with pain and peril, this existence was also characterized by a holism many media and cultural theorists consider to be lost to us today in a world of dualism, preferences,and hierarchies. As media theorist and Catholic priest Walter Ong put it, “Oral communication unites people in groups Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself. ..For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center.” People living in this oral, timeless civilization saw God, or the gods, in everything around them. While they had to worry about where their next meal was coming from, they felt no pressure to succeed or to progress, to achieve or to improve. They had nowhere to go, since the very notion of a future hadn’t yet been invented this stasis lasted several thousand years.
Everything changed, finally, in the Axial Age with the invention of text. The word-pictures of hieroglyphic writing were replaced with the more discrete symbols of an alphabet. The progenitor of a more digital style of storage, letters were precise and abstract. Combined together, they gave people a way to represent the mouth noises of oral culture in a lasting artifact. Like a digital file, a spelled word is the same everywhere it goes and does not decay. The simple twenty-two-letter alphabet popularized and democratized writing, giving people a way to record promises, debts, thoughts, and events. The things written down one day could be read and retrieved the next.
Once a line could truly be drawn in something other than sand, the notion of history as a progression became possible. with the invention of text came the ability to draft contracts, which were some of the first documents ever written, and described agreements that endured over time. With contracts came accountability, and some ability to control what lay ahead. The notion of a future was born. Religion, in the oral tradition, came from the mouth of a leader or pharaoh, himself a standing-in for God. Text transformed this passive relationship to God or nature with a contract, or, more precisely, a covenant between people and God. What God demands was…