I’d been thinking about how Ancient Greece lost writing for over half a millenium, because there’s been more and more an ever-stronger pushback against Big Tech’s technoboosterism, and I eventually got curious about the logistics of what happened when writing returned: for instance, what would you write on, especially for longer texts.

In 407 BCE, about 300 years after writing comes back to Ancient Greece, two sheets of paper to write an expense ledger cost 1⅓ drakhmai, roughly six grams of silver. We currently have “ledger”-sized paper (~A3 paper), and two sheets of normal-weight (80 gsm) ledger paper weighs ~20g. Papyrus cost a third of its weight in silver!

But! As for ancient baskets of goods, the going salary of an architect was a drakhma a day! A day’s pay for your writing material! And architects nowadays can work at $50/hr, for (say) a $500/day salary. Gold is $50/g nowadays: for 20g of paper, it’s comparable to if modern copy paper were worth half its weight in gold.

(Sources say that this high cost is from Egyptian monopoly pricing, with exorbitant taxes at every step, and it’s understandable why: it’s hard to administer an empire keeping debt records only in oral-formulaic poetry, or on wax tablets, or clay, or on the beach like Archimedes, and Egypt on the decline after fighting off the sea peoples probably didn’t want the competition.)

In the late Antique period, in England, in 1379, 126 books cost £113, and each £ was roughly 250g of silver, and hardcovers these days weigh around half a kilo, so, the books were roughly worth half their weight in silver. Nowadays, you can upload a 500 page pdf and get printed a ream of A4 paper individually-produced bound hardcover for $24, which is 2.5kg, and silver is ~$1/g, so $25 instead of $2500, only 100x cheaper now compared to several decades before movable type.

The copypaper-worth-its-weight-in-gold metaphor got me thinking about other examples of 25000x price improvement. The hard drive space to store one gigabyte of information cost $100k in 1985, $1k in 1995, and $1 in 2005. Tech twenty years in the future would literally have been worth its weight in gold, had it been available. (Also, it took a year or two to hand-copy a bible; a $500 printer these days can print a page a second, and finish a thousand pages of a bible in twenty minutes, a 25000x time reduction.

(a quick pechakucha talk I gave regarding ancient Greece losing writing was well received)