Which came first, the City or the Code? (book club Code Economy Ch 2)

The Code of Hammurabi

Writing, which is itself a form of code, enable humans to communicate code. Cities grow as code evolves. –Auerswald

Welcome to The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History, by Philip E. Auerswald. Chapter Two: Code looks at two epochal developments in human history: writing and cities.

One of the earliest pieces of writing we have uncovered is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi, Goddess of Beer, which contains, yes, a recipe for making beer (translation by Miguel Civil):

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer

You guys requested beer or wine with your books, so here you go.

The hymn contains two layers of code–first, there is the code which allows each symbol or character to stand for a particular sound, which let the author write down the recipe and you, thousands of years later, decode and read the recipe; and second, there is the recipe itself, a code for producing beer.

The recipe’s code likely far predates the hymn itself, as humans had begun brewing beer at least a couple thousand years earlier.

Writing and cities go hand in hand; it is difficult to imagine managing the day-to-day need to import food (and water) for thousands of people without some ability to encode information. As cities grow larger, complexity grows: one man in the woods may relieve himself behind a tree; thousands of people packed into a square mile cannot.

Each solved problem, once routinized, becomes its own layer of code, building up as the city itself expands; a city of thousands or millions of people cannot solve each person’s problems anew each day.

Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

But which came first, the city or the alphabet? Did the growth of cities spur innovations that improved agricultural output, or did agricultural innovations spur the growth of cities?

For example, settlement and construction appear to have gotten underway at Jericho (one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities) around 9 or 10,000 BC and at the mysterious Gobekli Tepe site began around 7-9,000 BC, before agriculture emerged in the region.

Writing developed a fair bit later, developing from clay shapes to shapes impressed in clay between 8,000 and 4,000 BC.

Amphitheater, Norte Chico, Peru

Others of the world’s earliest civilizations had either no or very little writing. The Norte Chico civilization of Peru, for example; by the time the Spaniards arrived, the Inca had an accounting system based on the quipu, a kind of string abacus, but appear to have not yet developed a true writing system, despite their palaces, cities, roads, emperor, and tax collectors. (Here is my previous post on Norte Chico.)

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro

The extensive Indus Valley civilization had some form of symbolic encoding, but few of their inscriptions are longer than 4 or 5 characters–the longest inscription found so far is 26 symbols, spread over three different sides of an object. Not exactly an epic–but the Indus Valley Civilization was nevertheless quite large and impressive, supporting perhaps 5 million people. (Previous post on the Indus Valley.)

Auerswald documents some of the ways cities appear to drive innovation–and to “live”:

The Santa Fe team found that cities are like biological organisms when it comes to “metabolic” urban processes that are analogous to nutrient supply and waste removal–transportation, for example, ha a branching structure much like veins or bronchi–but that cities differ fundamentally from biological organisms when it comes to indicators reflecting the creation and transmission of code. measuring the size of cities based on population and on the urban “metabolism” using metrics such as wages, GDP, electric power and gasoline consumption, and total  road surface, the team found a systematic relationship between city size and indicators of the supply of “nutrients” and waste removal… However, while metabolic indicators do not keep pace with the size of cities as they grow, indicators relating to the creation and transmission of code increase at a greater rate than city size. … In short, the creation of ideas accelerates with city growth, whereas the cost of new infrastructure is minimized.

This intriguing macro-level departure from the inverse relationships that hold for organisms ends up risking more questions about the evolution of cities than it answers: What mechanism enables larger cities to produce disproportionately more innovation and wealth than smaller cities?

Data Economy has a fascinating article in a similar vein: Street Smarts: The Rise of the Learning City:

The city as a brain

An amalgam of terms that have been used for parallel conceptions of the Smart City among them cyberville, digital city, electronic communities, flexicity, information city, intelligent city, knowledge-based city, MESH city, telecity, teletopia, ubiquitous city, wired city.

However the one I would like to propose, with population movement in mind, is The Learning City.

The term is based on a combination of two theories The Ego City and The Flynn Effect.

In 2009 Neurobiologist Mark Changizi from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute released a paper entitled Ego City: Cities Are Organized Like Human Brain.

Changizi sees strikingly real similarities between the brain and a city.

The central idea being that they organise and evolve similarly due to the need for efficiency.

As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organisation in order to achieve the right level of reciprocity.

This is analogous to the widening of streets in cities.

The research team found mutual “scaling laws” for brains and cities.

For example, as the surface area of a brain or city grows, the number of connectors (neurons or highways) increased at a similar rate for each.

Likewise, a bigger city needs more highway exits in the same proportion as a bigger brain needs more synapses connecting neurons.

“The brain is like a city.

Cities develop and grow bigger and may get problems with roads and infrastructure, which is similar to what happens to our brains when we get older”, notes Håkan Fischer, Professor of Biological Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University.

 The learning city

This is curious when taken in the context of The Flynn Effect.

Intelligence Researcher James Flynn found that every decade without fail the human population scored higher on IQ tests.

An average increase of 3 points per decade.

His thesis suggests that the more information we as humans have to absorb and compute leads to an increase in IQ.

In this instance the increased information is data collected within the city.

As cities gain more data they adapt and in turn get smarter.

Human brains faced with a busier world filled with more information brings about an increase in IQ from generation to generation.

As people migrant to cities creating a more complex environment for the city it to must gather this data, learn and raise its Smart City IQ.

This is The Learning City.

On the other hand, the data Auerswald cites–from the “Santa Fe Team”–only looks at cities from the US, China, the EU, and Germany. How would this data look if it incorporated other megacities, like Manila, Philippines (the world’s densest city); Sao Paolo, Brazil; Bombay, India; Caracas, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; or Jakarta, Indonesia? Of the world’s ten biggest cities, only two–Seoul, #1, and Tokyo, #10–are in the first world. (#9 Shanghai, is well on its way.)

#2 Sao Paolo might be more energy efficient than villages in the Brazilian hinterland (or it may not, as such towns may not even have electricity,) but does it produce more innovation than #11 New York City? (No American city made the top 10 by population.)

If cities are drivers of innovation, why are so many of the biggest in the third world? Perhaps third world countries offer their citizens so little that they experience a form of extreme brain drain, with everyone who can fleeing to the most productive regions. Or perhaps these cities are simply on their way–in a century, maybe Sao Paolo will be the world’s next Shanghai.

The city, by definition, is civilization–but does the city itself spur innovation? And are cities, themselves, living things?

Geoffrey West has some interesting things to say on this theme:

“How come it is very hard to kill a city? You can drop an atom bomb on a city, and 30 years later, it’s surviving.”

Here’s a transcript of the talk.

Hiroshima in 1945:

Hiroshima today:

Hiroshima montage

Detroit, 1905:

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, 1905–h/t Photos of Detroit’s Golden Age

Detroit today:

Detroit Book Depository

“Bombs don’t destroy cities; people destroy cities.”

Some quick notes on the big six civilizations (pt. 1)

Picture 4



Chinese proto-writing
Chinese proto-writing



European proto-writing
European proto-writing


Indus Valley seals
Indus Valley seals
Indus valley seal impression, possibly script
Indus valley seal impression, possibly script




The spread of agriculture
The spread of agriculture

















1. Mesopotamia (Sumer):
fertile-crescent-ted-mitchellSumer (/ˈsmər/)[note 1] was the first ancient urban civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages, and arguably the first civilization in the world.[1]

Proto-writing in the region dates back to c. 3500 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr and date back to 3300 BC; early cuneiform writing emerged in 3000 BC.[2]

Cities of Sumer
Cities of Sumer

Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence), a language isolate.[3][4][5][6] …

Sumerian culture seems to have appeared as a fully formed civilization, with no pre-history. …

Uruk, one of Sumer’s largest cities, has been estimated to have had a population of 50,000-80,000 at its height;[28] given the other cities in Sumer, and the large agricultural population, a rough estimate for Sumer’s population might be 0.8 million to 1.5 million. The world population at this time has been estimated at about 27 million.[29]…

Babylonian math homework
Babylonian math homework*

The Sumerians developed a complex system of metrology c. 4000 BC. This advanced metrology resulted in the creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. From c. 2600 BC onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems. The earliest traces of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period.[45] The period c. 2700 – 2300 BC saw the first appearance of the abacus, and a table of successive columns which delimited the successive orders of magnitude of their sexagesimal number system.[46] The Sumerians were the first to use a place value numeral system. … They were the first to find the area of a triangle and the volume of a cube.[47] …

* “Babylonian clay tablet YBC 7289 with annotations. The diagonal displays an approximation of the square root of 2 in four sexagesimal figures, 1 24 51 10, which is good to about six decimal digits.
1 + 24/60 + 51/602 + 10/603 = 1.41421296… The tablet also gives an example where one side of the square is 30, and the resulting diagonal is 42 25 35 or 42.4263888…”

Continuing on:

Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer
Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer

Commercial credit and agricultural consumer loans were the main types of loans. The trade credit was usually extended by temples in order to finance trade expeditions and was nominated in silver. The interest rate was set at 1/60 a month (one shekel per mina) some time before 2000 BC and it remained at that level for about two thousand years.[49] Rural loans commonly arose as a result of unpaid obligations due to an institution (such as a temple), in this case the arrears were considered to be lent to the debtor.[50] They were denominated in barley or other crops and the interest rate was typically much higher than for commercial loans and could amount to 1/3 to 1/2 of the loan principal.[49]

Periodically “clean slate” decrees were signed by rulers which cancelled all the rural (but not commercial) debt and allowed bondservants to return to their homes. … The first known ones were made by Enmetena and Urukagina of Lagash in 2400-2350 BC. According to Hudson, the purpose of these decrees was to prevent debts mounting to a degree that they threatened fighting force which could happen if peasants lost the subsistence land or became bondservants due to the inability to repay the debt.[49] …

Examples of Sumerian technology include: the wheel, cuneiform script, arithmetic and geometry, irrigation systems, Sumerian boats, lunisolar calendar, bronze, leather, saws, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, armor, quivers, war chariots, scabbards, boots, sandals, harpoons and beer. The Sumerians had three main types of boats:

  • clinker-built sailboats stitched together with hair, featuring bitumen waterproofing
  • skin boats constructed from animal skins and reeds
  • wooden-oared ships, sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals walking along the nearby banks

… The Sumerians’ cuneiform script is the oldest (or second oldest after the Egyptian hieroglyphs) which has been deciphered (the status of even older inscriptions such as the Jiahu symbols and Tartaria tablets is controversial).

reconstructed Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq
Reconstructed Neo-Sumerian Great Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq

Lamassu Designs has made a lovely infographic on the Sumerian/Mesopotamian calendar/numerical system, which for some reason is failing to download properly. So I’m screencapping it for you:

by Lamassu Design, part 1

by Lamassu Design, part 2

Lamassu Design, part 3

Lamassu Design, part 4

Lamassu Design, part 5

Lamassu Design, part 6

by Lamassu Design, part 7

by Lamassu Design, part 8

by Lamassu Design, part 9

Lamassu Design, part 10

Lamassu Design, part 11

Lamassu Design, part 12

Lamassu Design, part 13

Lamassu Design, part 14

Lamassu Design, part 15

Lamassu Design, part 16 Lamassu Design, part 17


1280px-Ur_mosaic  Standard_of_Ur_chariots

marsh near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers
marsh near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers
Reconstructed Sumerian finery
Reconstructed Sumerian finery