Of Empires and Experiences: What Does Your Data Mean?

Oct. 12, 2023
As archeologists, linguists, and other scholars probe the distant past, we’re learning that the origins of writing were deeply connected to data management

As I wrote in my Editor’s Notes for our September/October issue of Healthcare Innovation, anthropologists and other scientists have spent numerous decades already trying to piece together the history of humankind, to truly understand what the lived experience of our species has been, across hundreds of thousands of years and longer; needless to say, the work remains daunting, for a constellation of reasons.

One author who has taken up the challenge is Yuval Noah Harari, Ph.D., who lectures in the Department of History at the University of Jerusalem. Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was first published in Hebrew in 2011; and once it was published in English in 2014, it garnered a huge amount of attention for its very broad look at the evolution of human civilization.  Speaking of that human civilization, Galen Strawson, in a 2014 review of the book in The Guardian, asked, “Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it's easier to write a brief history of time – all 14 billion years – and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve.” Strawson is critical of parts of the book, criticizing Harari’s ad hominem attacks on contemporary liberal society, for example. But he gives him credit for tackling this sprawling subject.

Indeed, there are passages in Sapiens that simply leap out at the reader, such as this one, which follows Harari’s description of the prodigious memories that individuals had to develop in ancient societies, prior to written knowledge and widespread literacy. He writes that, “[W]hen particularly complex societies began to appear in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, a completely new type of information became vital—numbers. Foragers were never obligated to handle large amounts of mathematical data. No forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruits on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers. Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital. It was never enough to legislate laws and tell stories about guardian gods. One also had to collect taxes,” which meant gathering large numbers of data points—and that pitched society over time into a new era, with the Sumerians developing writing sometime between 3,500 and 3,000 B.C.E.

Further, Harari noted that, “Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, once that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data (keeping records of stored harvests). This system is called ‘writing.”

Harari also noted that Sumerians had 2 types of signs. One to denote numbers (clay tablets for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3600 and 36000; to divide day into 24 hours and of the circle into 360 degrees) and one to represent people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth. And he further recounts that, sometime before the 9th century, Arabs invaded India, encountered the numbering system (0 to 9 devised by Hindus), understood its usefulness, refined it, and spread it through the Middle East and then to Europe.

How did humans organize themselves in mass cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer, Harari concluded, is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.

Fast-forward several millennia, and we humans now live in a world in which abstract information—words and numbers—now dominates our lives. Indeed, Harari notes, “Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master.” What’s more, he reflects, “Eventually, computers might outperform humans in the very fields that made Homo sapiens the ruler of the world: intelligence and communication.”

Of course, as we’re all learning in the U.S. healthcare system, data alone is lacking in meaning. Still, when it comes to assessing patient experiences, leaders in patient care organizations nationwide are endeavoring to understand the experiences of patients and families, while they work to make the patient experience a better one. As Senior Contributing Editor David Raths notes in our September/October cover story, the collective experience of the healthcare system of the COVID-19 pandemic heightened awareness of patients’ and families perspectives. Patient experience work is gradually becoming less of an art and more of a science.

The path forward will necessarily be a complex one, with many phases and steps. That said, what we learn about the patient experience will reaffirm what has been the history-long story of humankind—making sense of the world around us.

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