Cuneiform Tablets, Betamax, and the Permanence of Knowledge

Letters are messy, sloppy things. They are imprecise by their very nature. The letter  R is simply a segment of a continuum of rhotic sounds that could be subdivided into two letters, or a dozen, or rather be lumped in with something nearby like the letter L. Not only are letters arbitrary in their first designation but they alter in every situation. Lenition, fortition, epenthesis, elision, Cheshirization, assimilation, and dissimilation will all change the letter spoken or written on the page based on the letters that come before or after. Numbers are clean and pure. The number two may have two integers next to it, one and three. If we include real numbers, 2.0000001 will be very close and 2.00000000000001 closer still, yet two is still entirely discrete and unpolluted.  It remains unaffected by what comes before and after. Perfect and unchangeable, numbers are not written in the book of nature; they are the book of nature. They stand above the ebb and flow of slang and borrowing, the tides of conquest and influence. Languages are born and go extinct and it is often impossible to tell when one takes up and one leaves off. At what point did Latin become Italian? Numbers have not just permanence but universality to recommend them. The symbol 2 may be spoken in hundreds of different tongues but means the same in all of them.

The attempts to base language on a perfect mapping of reality, to make language correspond to number have failed thus far. If language cannot be made perfect it might yet be made permanent by tethering it to number. If every possible sound producible by the human throat could be assigned on and only one real number, then language may inherit the eternity that pertains to number. Hitherto, all human knowledge has been borne by some corporeal vehicle. What we have learned has been traced on vellum or papyrus, scratched in clay, painted on walls, or retained in our own brains. When that vehicle is destroyed or disintegrates, that knowledge is lost forever. We look back and lament the burning of the Alexandrian Library, the immolations of Shih Huang-Ti, as well as those of Archbishops Zumarraga and Ximenes, the despoliation of anonymous barbarians, the repurposing of the ignorant and the indifferent. If numbers themselves, eternal and imperishable, could anchor our knowledge, it will be made invulnerable to mold, flame, vandalism, vermin, and even death.

In our age, our knowledge is pooled, but not stored in one gigantic reservoir but channeled among a huge number of ponds. The collected volume of all these ponds together amounts to an ocean of information, and this ocean can be reached from anywhere. There is no spot so landlocked, isolated, or benighted that it can’t be turned into a beach. This seems like welcome news. Throughout our history, we have advanced as a species but that progress has often been interrupted and sometimes been pushed back. Yet after the night has come the dawn, the winter is broken by the spring, death and desolation are followed by rebirth, and always through the rediscovery of the knowledge and wisdom of the past. These secrets, once lost are found again. We are creatures of precedent. We rely upon the discoveries and techniques so painfully achieved by our ancestors. What worked then will work just as well now. We learn that things were once better than they are now, that there is a better way of doing things, and everything changes. Our technology is algorithm, and as algorithm it is reproducible as long as it is understood. If we make tools out of stone, we learn of a metal called bronze. If groaning under tyranny, we are acquainted with the republics of the ancient world. The cure for diseases, the best usages of agriculture, the constitutions of passable if not ideal governments, the edifice of mathematics and the discoveries of science founded upon them, will all be found in this ancient knowledge. There has never been a cataclysm so great that all our accumulated wisdom has been wiped out. Some copy has always been hidden or locked away somewhere. We are the heirs to the trials and errors, the failures and the triumphs of our ancestors.

None of the disasters of the past has destroyed that heritage. Yet it is possible for some catastrophe so widespread and overwhelming to befall us that every book, every text, every record, every picture and image is effaced and we are hurled back to the very beginning. We will not stumble across any signpost to lead us out of this longest and most terrible of our dark ages. The chances of this are small but they aren’t null. What is more likely, in fact probable, is another painful regression. We flatter ourselves that this could never happen, not to us. Would the inhabitants of the Roman World under the Antonines believe that their empire will be smashed, their capital ruined and depopulated, and their world carved up into tribal fiefdoms ravaged by barbarian incursions? Could the sages of the Tang Dynasty ever imagine Genghis Khan?

 

In each of these cases, a civilization succumbed to a period of violence, poverty, and ignorance that was only slowly and agonizingly banished, but our own knowledge is ubiquitous and ever present, and without ignorance, violence and poverty cannot hold sway. Our art and science are written on clouds, nebulous and indestructible. Our wisdom is reposed safely in binary code to be rendered back into shape, color, letter, or image whenever called upon. We are proof against the exigencies that plagued our more primitive and vulnerable predecessors.

Our knowledge is reposed in binary but not even ones and zeroes can be set in some Platonic firmament. They most have some embodiment. They must be written on something solid. Early computers used large floppy disks to hold information. These evolved into smaller hard plastic disk with a metal slide. These disks gave way to CD-ROM’s. More recently the flash drive has appeared. Each new vessel is a marked improvement on what has come before, but each renders its predecessor unreadable and useless. Information is recorded in strings of ones and zeroes but these must be organized by some rule, some syntax that governs how their output is to appear. The modes by which we store, retrieve, and display that information change, and they are whizzing by faster and faster with every generation. The Parmenidean cloud turns out to be a Heraclidean river that can never be drawn from twice to yield the same mouthful.

Throughout history, whatever was recorded could be read unless its vehicle was damaged or obliterated. Archaeologists dig through the deserts of Iraq and unearth cuneiform tablets from the city-states of Sumeria. These tablets have lain under the sands for thousands upon thousands of years but their wedge-shaped imprints are still quite visible and can still be read ages later. Buy a Betamax copy of Mad Max at a garage sale for a nickel, and you’ve struck a bad bargain because you’ll never be able to view it. Even if the tape it was recorded on was still pristine, the means of displaying it have vanished forever. These storage devices are prisons for the knowledge held within.

Kings of old used to lock away their enemies in oubliettes, cells in which they were held until death, forgotten ever after. The prisoners were transitory, soon crumbling to dust, while their stone cells remained to entomb the next occupant. We lock away our school projects, films, videos, photos, documents, and writings in these plastic oubliettes. Unlike granite and iron, these plastic and polyester components soon degrade. Even if they didn’t the treasures within would be lost forever. If the prison remained intact, the key to unlocking it vanished long ago.

We cannot stop this frantic rush, and perhaps there is no need. The internet is a flow of information, and like all global processes it is fluent, vast, and chaotic. And like all processes, it can be studied and recorded. We must attempt to take a snapshot of the entire internet at a given moment at certain intervals, to rescue its contents from the annihilation sure to ensure from its turbulence, to map and diagram what is jumbled and incoherent, and to document the evolution of the mightiest force of our age.

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