13 – #WIRE

Writing created a collective memory for humanity, one which far outstripped the capability of any single mind, both in scope and duration. Clay, parchment and paper do not last forever – particularly before the advance of an invading army, launched by another city – but they do create a record that stands outside and beyond any single mind. Anyone who mastered the skill of writing – the high-technology of the fourth millennium BCE – could share in the wealth of information gathered by those who came before, or who lived in distant lands. The space for knowledge immediately transcended any particular place or time, becoming all places and all times.

The library is the visible manifestation of this cultural wormhole, where the works of all the sages, gathered together, provides a common mind unlike any previously known to humanity. Thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of volumes so extended the scope of knowing possible for any single person that a new creature – the scholar – came onto the scene. By definition well-read, the scholar assumed the roll of the ‘storyteller of the cities’, distilling the wisdom of the ancients into utility. Alexander the Great kept Aristotle close at hand, finding in Plato’s student a living encyclopedia of the known, knowledge Alexander put into practice to conquer the ancient world. As a king, Alexander could command scholars to serve him, and this, as much as any technology of war, gave him advantage.

One of Aristotle’s students founded the famed Library of Alexandria, the greatest collection of books in the ancient world. No one today knows how many texts the library housed – estimates range from several tens of thousands to half a million. By today’s standards, the most important library in history was no bigger than an average city or university library. Yet scholars spent entire lifetimes reading through the works, learning everything others had learned about the world. Much of this fell into history, poetry and rhetoric, but some works concerned themselves with observations of the ways of the world – natural philosophy.

The ancient Greeks knew of the peculiar properties of a substance they named electrum, which we today call amber. When rubbed against fabrics and furs, amber creates an electrostatic charge that can be literally hair-raising — and capable of mysterious attractions. Greek natural philosophers knew none of the whys, but knew how to make it happen, an observation passed down in their writings, and carried along in works which survived the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the collapse of the Classical world. Within a few hundred years, Islamic scholars in Baghdad had recovered the thread, translating Ancient Greek texts into Arabic, which, as a result of the Crusades, soon made their way into Europe. (War spreads more knowledge than it tramples underfoot.)

These texts reached Europe in the years just before the technology of movable type turned a repurposed wine press into a replicating machine. Gutenberg’s printing technology automated the task of writing, making books reproducible in vast quantities, and, for the first time, easily affordable. Libraries, both institutional and personal, exploded, with an average gentleman’s library containing two hundred volumes. The printing press transformed every reader into a scholar. Readers with a thirst for natural philosophy quickly absorbed everything the ancients had written, moving on to the more recent Islamic scholars (who gave us Algebra and optics, among much else) using their writings as a springboard for their own investigations into the characteristics of the natural world.

These Europeans scholars used a common language (Latin) to communicate their results with one another, developing a methodology which demanded they share both the results and the process of their investigations, so that those results could be reproduced by others. Results that could not be reproduced would not be accepted as discoveries. This ‘scientific method’, a specific and refined form of sharing, made it possible for natural philosophers to quickly build upon the experimental results of their peers. Sharing across a common framework of scientific methodology amplified and accelerated the overall rate of discovery, improved the effectiveness of experiments, and lead to a huge growth of the amount known about the world, knowledge which would then be put to work in new experiments, leading to new discoveries, and so on, in an accelerating ‘virtuous cycle’ of reinforcement.

By the early eighteenth century, the ancients’ experiments with electrum had grown into a full investigation of the attractive and repulsive qualities of ‘electricity’. Benjamin Franklin identified lightning as electricity, while André-Marie Ampère established the relationship between electricity and magnetism, a relationship fully quantified, first by Michael Faraday, then by James Clerk Maxwell in his eponymous equations. In the years between Ampère and Maxwell enough had been learned that experimenters could create simple circuits, built from batteries, wires and magnets, circuits that could transmit a signal from one point to another, almost instantaneously.

In 1837, Samuel Morse conducted the first successful experiments in telegraphy, using the magnetic field created by a closed circuit to carry a signal. Suddenly, the field of human communication, no longer bounded by the reach of our voices or the speed of our horses, extended across the entire surface of the planet, bringing everyone, everywhere into a‘global village’. The whole planet united into a single city. This collapse of space and time transformed knowledge, enabling a sort of universal library, where information from anywhere could be delivered everywhere, immediately.

Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates. Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area. The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to moments. As distance collapsed, the amount of knowledge coming to each one of us increased: the telegraph led to the newspaper – which printed the articles ‘off the wires’ – then to radio and television.

All of this knowledge, continually presented to us, produced a corresponding pressure to preserve what had been learned. Just as the concentrated social sharing of the city heated the social crucible, and led to writing, so the electrification of communication created the preconditions necessary for digitization. We think of the first century of electrification as hopelessly ‘analog’, yet the dashes and dots of Morse code are the first binary encoding system. From the beginning, electrification has been essentially digital.

The digital is the response to the electric, just as writing was the response to the city.

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