Civilisation as we know it

In the beginning there was knowledge. But there was no one who knew it and no one who could learn it, so it just hung in the air, waiting for cognizance. Then minds came along and knowledge became ‘theirs’ (or so they thought). They shared it among themselves, made use of it, and generally improved upon those uses as best as they could. They thought knowledge was something they owned, but they were wrong. It was knowledge that owned them.

Knowledge was… okay I am skipping to present tense now… Knowledge is an overarching field that contains all that there is — this includes the person (you, for example) who thinks he ‘has’ knowledge. This field contains everything that can be known and is way larger than anything we might even try to imagine.

For purposes of our own (social, governmental, economical), we have found it useful to wrap rules around uses of information. We call these by various names — copyright, patents, intellectual property etc. We use these wrappers for the general purpose of keeping our markets going and making sure that money flows freely across society rewarding and encouraging innovation of all kinds.

However, something very funny happens every few hundred years or so. We grow so accustomed to defining the world around us by way of these mental wrappers that any change in the nature of these wrappers causes us to cry out loud in defence of what we consider “civilisation as we know it” (which seems, I must admit, an apt phrase, seeing as how we don’t know much about civilisation at all).

Before the Gutenberg printing press was invented, books were fancy old things. Monks who had devoted their lives to learning calligraphy, sat in solemn silence and copied books by hand on to large, beautiful leather-bound tomes. They made few books, but each one was a work of art in and of itself. Because these books were rare, they weren’t exactly market material. They went to those who could pay. Heck, often enough, these books were explicitly made for the consumption of the ultra-rich of those days.

When the printing press first started work on a more-or-less large scale, it was decried as a corrupting influence upon “civilisation as we know it”. They said that if the mass-produced book was allowed to thrive, then the trained calligraphers and their creations — the beautiful leather-bound tomes which cost more than any man on the street could afford to pay in his natural lifetime — would disappear and it would be a loss society in general will not be able to survive.

The logic went thus: Costly and difficult-to-produce goods are better for society because they add character to it by being… well… costly and difficult-to-produce. Mechanisms that allow for cheap and easy production of goods will destroy “civilisation as we know it” because they will put the power to create and distribute in the hands of the dirty masses who will then proceed to crowd the market with a bewildering variety of items and make costly and difficult-to-acquire items redundant. The logic also seemed to imply that goods that are difficult to make and therefore difficult to acquire (either because they are costly or because they are too rare) deserve market space more than easy goods do.

The obviously preposterous nature of the argument aside, what seems evident is the tendency to reject new technologies by insisting on limiting access. And it repeats itself, time and again. Whenever a new technology appears and seems to have disruptive power over existing market structures, you can bet your grandmother there will be a section of people who would rise up against that brand new threat and shout that it will destroy “civilisation as we know it”.

Also, it doesn’t help that it’s the same few arguments that are recycled upon the arrival of each new technology. They said the mass-produced books had poor paper quality and couldn’t compare to the exquisite craftsmanship that went into the making of “real books”. They said that the TV set (which was more mass-market than the cinema hall was) produced video of poor quality (because of the smaller screen) and couldn’t compare to the exquisite colours and resolution of “real movies”. These days, in a curious turn of events, they say that ebooks are virtual and (perhaps therefore) lifeless and can’t compare with the exquisite feel of “real books”. We truly have come full circle.

So, back to the point I started this letter with — knowledge and civilisation. We are pretty much clueless regarding almost everything. Our futurists are merely wild imaginatives and our prediction systems are all but accurate. The only way we can know anything about the course civilisation will take is by waiting and watching it unfold.

History can help though. We can look back at patterns in our collective past and use those as a base to place our collective future on. As far as one can tell, knee-jerk reactions to the general opening up of access will never go away. But what seems equally evident is that the more access to innovation and markets that the masses have, the faster we can move towards a future where “civilisation as we know it” is no longer under threat.

Back in the age of limitations, they used to teach Greek and Latin in (hard-to-access) institutions of higher learning. English, the language of the man on the street, was considered unworthy of serious study.

Guess which language survived and thrived!

(Image source: ArtLex on Incunabula)

#books, #civilisation, #culture, #printing, #technology, #words