Monthly Archives: December 2011
Centuries ago , centuries from now
Can you imagine how the final years of the 21 century will be? Ask your old great-granny, born in the beginning of the 20th century, if she could imagine the advent of personal computers when she was 5 years old. My mother-mother-in-law is now harnessing the marvels of email. Little did she know when she was learning the calligraphy of her fist vowels, with her fingers immerse in the blue ink of a fountain pen, that 85 years later she would not need to sharp a pencil to send a message to her daughter in Australia in less than 5 seconds.
In the seventies I was entering my twenties and my brother who’s 11 years younger than me and complaining of growing pains, got a ZX spectrum 48K for his birthday . I was green of envy when I saw him programming curves and functions in basic while me, a proud undergraduate of a science degree did not even have a clue how to switch on that machine. It wasn’t until, 10 years later when I went to Denmark to do my PhD that I first bought and learnt to use a stylish Apple Macintosh Classic Education. That tiny grey screen was the Apple of my eyes, but two days after I went back to the shop complaining that the computer might be damaged since I could not write anything with it. It was then that I learnt that I had to buy some software and install it if I wanted to make use of all its capacity. In those days of nicked software from the University’s computers nobody had told me that computers did not come with writing, calculation and drawing tools.
When I was 11 years old in the sixties-the same age my brother got his first ZX spectrum I did not have a clue of what a computer was. My father gave me this colourful encyclopaedia in 12 volumes , with a black and white image of a state of the art machine that looked like a butcher’s refrigerator embellished with the spinning wheels of a magnetic tape-deck recorder, just like the one my father had from 1952. Little did I know that 40 years later two thirds of the world’s population would have one of those, 50 times more powerful fitting in their pocket. Such terrible miniatures are the devil in marital relationships. The attraction of young bosomed blond girls is powerless given a choice for the newest totally unnecessary downloadable applet. What a paradox! In the era of communication, people get divorced for lack of communication. Go and figure!
Now…can you imagine how life was 2 centuries ago? Yes, you probably learnt it in your history lessons, if you weren’t too distracted by angry birds in your mobile phone. In my days we did not have mobile phones, so I was blessed with enough time and dedication to learn about civilizations 40 centuries ago, and what the Sumerians were up to 2010 years B.C.
Imagine a point in time and call it zero. If you walk to the right you will reach year 2010 of our era, if you walk from zero to the left you will reach year 2010 before our era. What did they do without computers? How did they enjoy their leisure time? How did they calculate logarithms base 2 and the square room of 348? They did not have computers to write down their ideas, but still they recorded them on stones and clay tablets, the first version of a monochromatic iPad. I guess in Sumerian days, one of those tablets might have been as expensive as any tablet today. They had specialists, with uncanny dexterity pressing those cuneiform shapes on the clay or stone, just as we have specialists to fix our PC when it crashes. Maybe the Sumerian scribes knew better what they were doing than today’s software engineers!
But let us continue or walk on the time line…
Can we imagine what humans will be like in 40 centuries from now?
Well, let us ask ourselves; is there any major difference between us today and our ancestors 40 centuries ago? My answer is NO. Actually we could walk back 364 centuries and see no difference in appearance nor in nature of our human ancestors. It is generally accepted that Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago, since then, we invented tools and devices to store our memories, so we can liberate our brain from using all its energy in memory storage. Unfortunately, in all these thousand years of evolution, our RAM has not increased significantly. But instead, the same way we use external hard-drives to store our information, away from our virus inclined computers, we do the same in relation to our brains. In case the brain gets damage, with delusions and pathological beliefs, the records continue to stand for themselves for everyone else to see. Our brain is not a totally reliable machine. It forgets things and makes up memories as it goes by. We were loaded with the primordial versions of brain software and has not been not upgraded very often since. Nature is parsimonious and “if it works, don’t try to fix it”. Not like Microsoft!
I always find it difficult to think of big numbers. Millions of light years, microns, megatons, thousands of years ago, or a billion of Euros. Maybe because I rarely see thousand Euros on my hand, let alone a billion!… My biological hard-drive cannot relate to so many zeros in a number. So many years in the past or in the future. This may be the reason why creationists are so eager to think of the world as 5,000 years old. This is something our brains could grasp, but just about. Everything beyond that freezes our biological RAM and we need to access our external information storage devices; from paintings in a cave, printed press or gigabytes embedded in an optical disk. It is all information stored outside our brains. So in reality, we did not evolve very much. What evolved were the information storage mechanisms . Without such devices we would still be cracking nuts with a stone.
The secret of our cultural evolution is not in the development of our brain but in the external devices that allow for information storage.
Now picture yourself in the 25th century after a nuclear or environmental catastrophe, with no energy to run your memory keeping machines, with no books to read, or with information in impenetrable codes and languages. What would you do? How many symphonies would you write or space shuttles would you build? None… absolutely nothing. Not a dingo’s kidneys. You would revert to your natural hunter-gatherer state, running after the few rabbits that survived global warming and running away from hungry polar bears wandering in the empty streets of London. You would revert to the simple tasks of fighting for survival and keep propagating your genes if resource availability allowed for it.
So, please come down from that pedestal, thinking of yourself as this the “most evolved animal” superior to everything else in nature, with rights to exploit it to exhaustion. You are nothing without historically accumulated information, that luxury that you can access every time you need to repair your dripping tap, fabricating Molotov cocktails, or harness the power nuclear energy .
Everything we know is learnt from accumulated information. It is not created, it is not passed through our genes, nor is it stored in our brains. Once in a while one of us provides a little contribution to the advancement of knowledge, we store it and leave it to the next generations to use it and add a little bit more. Our knowledge is made of small add-ins along time and among the millions of small contributions from each one of us. It is a concerted co-operative effort for accumulation of information-most of it rubbish!… Is like little applets that we add to our brain when we need them. Then we delete them when it is taking up space. The secret is to know which ones to delete and which ones to keep. What is rubbish and useful information? Information storage is the fuel of civilisation. It is up to us how to use it, wisely and in an fashion that allows us to continue inhabiting this planet, together with all the other organisms that share it with us.
So what is the big difference between now and then? Sixty centuries ago Sumerians invented the cuneiform writing to store information on their mud pads. Sixty centuries later we create pads to store mud.