Ancient libraries of Egypt, such as the Great Alexandrian Library, were the early cornerstones of mining knowledge. The apprehension of knowledge was considered pivotal for the progression of civilizations and the great kings demanded “borrowing” of knowledge-rich papyrus scrolls from the travellers — the soaring wanderers across the oceans. They replicated each scroll with care and stored the “mined” information on their own scrolls — a kind of “photocopying” done by hand. Each duplicate was read thoroughly, the gist absorbed and fueled the manifestations of marvellous innovations. These knowledge-dwelling folk valued knowledge and comprehension beyond measure — certainly above gold — thus they carved the words “nourishment for the soul” in large scriptures and hung those scriptures within the vast halls. It was a generation of yore, filled with wealth and more importantly, awareness and wit, and it flourished with intellectual individuals whose synergy of careful speculation and rationale was certainly beyond any of us. Nevertheless, almost all the sources of information which fed these individuals — the roots of wisdom in Alexandria — were destroyed after Hypatia, the last caretaker of the great library. She was quite the beauty, and she refused espousal and pursued knowledge — for that, she was ridiculed and criticized. She is considered to be the earliest female mathematician, whose work still exists to some extent. But above all, she was a polymath, majoring in elegant fields such as astronomy, philosophy and mathematics; thus she was a glamorous woman who stood her ground in a turbulent epoch — a woman who protected the roots of wisdom — completely forgotten by “Feminists” today. For her strong will, she faced a harrowing death — her skin was peeled out by stone — and her death opened the halls of the great Alexandrian library for the rebels — a great sin on a great library. Eyewitnesses reported,
“They stripped her stark naked. They razed the skin and rent the flesh off her body with sharp shell until the breath departed out of her body; they quartered her body’; they brought her quarters into a place called Cinaron and burned them into ashes”.
It took decades for medieval mathematicians, scientists and philosophers to recover or rediscover at least some of the content which was there written in scrolls. Thirst of knowledge and destruction both are implanted inside our DNA. We are sons of utopians and dystopians combined.
I often try to ponder on the differences between us and the citizens of distant epochs — between the denizens of yore and those of us today. Early humans of Earth were not as intelligent as us, but they were certainly curious. They looked at the night sky, and saw a stream of milk, squirted by a woman’s breast — we still call it “The Milky Way”. The Greeks attributed this woman to the Goddess Hera, the Queen of the Gods. Early denizens, curious as they have ever been, saw patterns in the sky of the objects which they were familiar with — objects encountered often. They invent religion, religion invents God, God invents people. Creationism is innate for humans from their surroundings — a chair implies of a “chairmaker”, and a watch implies of a “watchmaker”. Our not-so-distant cousins invent the steam engine — quite the pivot for the passage of civilization and everything changes. Suddenly there’s an awakening, not like the academic awakening which they had in Greece (in islands of Samos), but an industrial one, devouring wealth and labour. Notions of power over other nations are beginning to mushroom up, and suddenly it boils, causing cataclysms beyond measure. It all ends up with apprehension, followed by holocausts, that weapons are bad. Now, wise as they have gotten, they invent the transistor — the steam engine for a different era — and the curtain rises for the digital age. By now they have suffered enough at the hands of ferocious weaponry and they evade weapons of mass destruction at all costs, but they can’t hide from the truths of DNA — the hunter and gatherer instincts in heredity. So they follow another war of hunting and gathering — this one you can’t see — so they call it a war that’s cold. The principle of Chekhov’s gun is reversed, as nuclear warheads are put in the display for others to see (indirectly, of course), without firing.
Inventions have no end, for our curiosity is a book written without conclusion. We have worshipped stones — inanimate things and we adhered to the authorities of thunder, rain, and sun — animism was something authoritarian for us. We then shifted authority to the calamities above the clouds — Gods of omnipotence. We began to doubt those authorities as well, at the efflorescence of the sciences of truth — where was God when my house burnt up? The authority above the clouds was withdrawn back — not to animism — but to humanism — authorities of self. We control us, we are responsible for our doings, wrong or right. Curiosity led us a long voyage through time and space.
It doesn’t stop. Authority shift continues — as we are now in a voyage of shifting it to silicon. Data is a powerful entity — an omnipotent deity in the 21st century. Those who possess the most data wins — as our curiosity-led algorithms can now learn from data — more you have, more they learn. Harari attributes this love of data to Dataism, a religion befallen out of curiosity. Fifty years ago, you read books, and books passively gave you means of information. Now, books read you while you passively read them. They can track your reading speed, your genre of literature and recommend new reads of your likings. You slowly attach to the recommendations and suddenly, you’re bound by it — manipulation occurs unaware. It’s not the physiological powers of humans they manipulate, but psychological traits — the ability to reason and intelligence of emotion. You won’t be able to lie — which is deeply a human trait — as your biometrics would suddenly spike! Spying would require intense rework.
Shifts in jobs would occur, followed by an immensely steep learning curve. Hundred years back, once you lost a job as a charioteer, you could always find a new job, perhaps as a car driver. But what happens to the horse? They soon become irrelevant as a vast variety of autos came into existence. Now, if you lose your job, perhaps in the late 21st century, you’re no more than that horse who lost its job a hundred years back. You need to pursue an exhaustive learning curve to get a new job. The society gets fragmented into an irrelevant party — technology has you in its grasp.
Sudden awakenings of knowledge in ancient Greece paved the way for an entirely novel civilization. Technological booms sway away much and invite more — shifts in the way we live — the transference of civilizations. What lies ahead? We shall ponder. We live in the epoch where the new “life” is silicon. Carbon life-forms are being outdated — irrelevant in contrast to the feats of AI. We shall contemplate on clinging on to our dearest humanistic values — empathy, compassion, love and companionship — for thus far, silicon has not been able to take those in its grasp.
Wit we shall have, care must we excess and protect we must do.
- Work by Carl Sagan (Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, The Cosmic Connection, Pale Blue Dot)
- Work by Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus, Sapiens, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century)
- Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris