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Wisdom of the Ancients

We tend to think of people of the past as being wise. Having had knowledge and techniques that have been lost, except perhaps for a few old books containing forgotten secrets. A big part of this probably has to do with actual history, for example in Europe the trick to making concrete was lost for a thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

If memory serves (it frequently doesn’t), it was returned to Europe, or at least Christian Europe, during the Crusades when Christians captured a cache of Greek and Roman books that had fallen into obscurity. (In Spain? Can’t recall.) It’s not clear to me whether the Muslims were still using concrete or if they were just sitting on the books without actually reading them. (Hey, it’s been a long time since history class!) That must have seemed pretty awesome to people at the time, finding those forgotten techniques from people who were, to them, mysterious and alien cultures from the distant past.

That’s still a common theme in fiction, a forgotten civilization with knowledge and technology more advanced than our own, whose secrets lie waiting to be rediscovered. It makes for grand adventure stories, where daring heroes explore mysterious ruins and unlock ancient secrets.

But in the real world, things aren’t so simple.

See the tricky thing about ancient people is that they were people, just like us. On the whole, they weren’t any smarter or stupider than we are now. Their wisdom seems above average to us now mostly because we tend to remember the things they were right about and discard their mistakes. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of distortion, (actually I think that’s very rare) but probably because what they were wrong about usually isn’t useful to us.

But the idea has power, as ideas do. Something marketed as “Ancient Chinese Wisdom” will sell better than the same thing without that label, because we remember that the ancient Chinese invented magnetic compasses, gunpowder, differential gears, and a thousand other mundane miracles. We forget that ancient Chinese wisdom also drives the demand for illegal rhinoceros horn, which has already caused the extinction of more than one species of rhino.

I’ve heard that in China the equivalent catch-phrase is “New American Science”. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but approve of the symmetry, at least.

This post germinated while I was reading the Medieval Bestiary site, looking specifically for fantastic creatures to use in fiction. I got a little distracted by how very wrong it was about animals that weren’t flights of wild imagination, but ordinary, mundane beasts that you can see in any zoo.  Read the rest of this entry

Future History

When ever we create a new technology, there’s a question of how long it’s going to last. This particular issue is well worth considering today, when we have planned obsolescence and the latest greatest thing that you absolutely must pay hundreds of dollars for right now will be useless in five years. But I was thinking about the nature of the internet and wondering how long it will survive.

See the ‘net isn’t a single thing, it’s an infrastructure, a collection of many, many technologies working together. Like roads and sewers the technologies change while the structure remains in place. This means that the internet has the potential to keep existing for a very, very long time. The remainder of human history, perhaps. It might even outlive us, if there are others to maintain it.

Since we tend to archive just about everything redundantly, it also allows for things like the Wayback Machine. Already, it’s possible for you to look at websites that are not only no longer maintained by their creators, but gone from their proper domains, too.

How long can those archives last? If we keep backing things up as we upgrade the servers, and keep using redundant systems that are good at maintaining data integrity, those archives could easily last centuries. It doesn’t seem implausible that they could survive as long as the internet itself.

Which means historians of the future will search internet archives to study our civilization. And since this is the beginning of the age of information networks, this period, right now, will be under intense scrutiny. They’ll be digging into our blogs, our videos, our tweets. Searching for understanding of how this age worked, how things changed. How we dealt with the transition to knowledge being so readily available to anyone with a wifi connection.

It’s a little intimidating to think that scholars of the future might be reading these very words and evaluating how accurate my speculation was. It’s also disconcerting to be speaking of my present in the past tense, come to think of it.

I wonder what they’ll think of it all. Will the internet of that time still be mostly nonsense? Will they marvel at how we once had to fight for free speech and used what were usually glorified rumor-mills to communicate vital information during a crisis? Or perhaps they will see it as a natural progression of the information networks we developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, as logical a next step as telegraph to telephone was, as obvious as using radio to coordinate emergency services. Or will they not know at all, will this data be suppressed or destroyed and lost to the people of the future?

A sobering thought, given the many attempts by many governments to censor or control the flow of information. We’ll just have to make sure they fail, so future generations will know what happened today.

Gay Marriage

(For more on this subject in general, and the ongoing legal battles over prop8 in particular, I recommend the excellent Prop 8 Trial Tracker)

Last weekend New York passed a bill legalizing gay marriage. I haven’t talked about it here because I kind of felt that everything had been said already, but you know what? They haven’t been said by me, and that’s already bitten me in the ass once, so here’s my say.

If this looks too long to read and you just want to know in simple terms how I feel about it so you can categorize me or something, I’m saying “Marriage bans do nothing but prevent some people from marrying the person they choose. Way to go New York, hope the remaining 44 states follow you into the 21st century soon!” If that’s all you need to know, then there’s no point in reading past the cut. Those of you who want details? Onward!
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