The New Renaissance?

2004-03-06

In The New Renaissance, Douglas Robertson delineates levels of human existence based on the most advanced mode of information retention available to human beings at the time:

  1. Biology
  2. Spoken language
  3. Written language
  4. Printed text
  5. Digitized storage

The mode of information retention is crucial because culture simply is information. Before the development of language, information could be retained only in the form of DNA; indeed, it is debatable whether we would consider those eons of pre-linguistic hominids to be fully human at all. Once we developed language (perhaps 100,000 years ago, though no one really knows), cultural evolution took over from biological evolution as the dominant form of progress and change among human beings. The epoch characterized by spoken language lasted until perhaps 6,000 years ago, although the transition from oral to literate culture was still a hot topic among the classical Greeks and many people still function in a mainly oral manner today. The age of the printed word began with the invention of moveable type in the 1450s and lasted about 500 years. And the world of digitized information storage has really just begun, but has already started to transform many areas of human endeavor.

There are several interesting aspects here. One is the quickening pace of cultural evolution, noted also by Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines: millions of years for biological information storage, tens (or perhaps hundreds) of thousands of years for spoken language, thousands of years for written language, hundreds of years for printed texts, and (so far) only decades for digitized storage, retrieval, and analysis of information using computers. Another is the ever-increasing carrying capacity of these methods: Robertson estimates 107 bits of information for pre-linguistic beings, 109 for spoken language, 1011 for written language, 1017 for printed texts, and 1025 for computers (these are rough estimates, and we don't know how much information could be stored in yet-to-be-developed electronic mechanisms).

One issue that Robertson does not address is why new means of information storage are developed. A key element, I think, is that the amount of information amassed by human beings and the range of their behaviors become too complex for the existing information storage mechanism, so new means are developed (experimentally at first and in one area of life, but soon expanded and generalized). And as is clear from human history, the ability to store more information results in greater evolutionary fitness: since the development of language we have been able to exercise ever-greater control over our environment, resulting in a population explosion, ever-longer lifespans, and ever-greater quality of life. A point not emphasized by Robertson is that the driver here is usually related to what the Marxists call "the means of production"; although scientists like Robertson prefer to talk about abstract pursuits such as science and art, written language seems to have been developed originally to record mundane trading transactions and legal contracts, and computers were developed mainly for commercial and military applications. It is only later that the benefits of such technologies trickled down to the arts, sciences, and everyday life.

Furthermore, human groups, societies, and civilizations who have adopted the more advanced information storage methods have become more dominant as well. For example, Western Europeans adopted printed texts first and reaped the benefits in the fields of science, navigation, commerce, and war, supplanting numerous other civilizations along the way; by Carroll Quigley's count in The Evolution of Civilizations, Western Europeans effectively put an end to Mesoamerican civilization (the Aztec empire) in 1550, Andean civilization (the Inca empire) in 1600, Hindu civilization (the Mogul empire) in 1900, Islamic civilization (the Ottoman empire) in 1920, Chinese civilization (the Manchu empire) in 1930, and Japanese civilization (the Tokugawa empire) in 1950, to which we can add Orthodox civilization (the Russo-Soviet empire) in 1990 (Quigley counts sixteen civilizations in human history, so Western Europeans ended almost half of them!). That doesn't necessarily mean that Western civilization is superior to those other civilizations in all respects, only that it has been more successful.

According to Robertson, computers will usher in the next level of civilization through a massive increase in our ability to store, retrieve, and analyze information, thereby introducing changes even more momentous than those introduced by printing. Certainly those changes will occur (and are occurring) more quickly. We had tens of thousands of years to adjust to spoken language, thousands of years to adjust to written language, mere hundreds of years to adjust to printed texts, and only decades to adjust to computers. Until even fifty years ago there were still some cultures in the Amazon, New Guinea, and parts of Africa and Asia that lived a hunter-gatherer existence without agriculture or written language; I'm sure there are billions of people who have never read a book; and now here come the computers! It's a lot for human beings to absorb in a short period of time, but the changes seem inexorable. And, far from experiencing a "new renaissance", we are not re-living some past epoch but setting out into uncharted and potentially choppy waters.

What kind of civilization will digital information storage lead to? It seems that written language brought with it the rise of states as opposed to the stateless societies of early man, and that concomitant with printed texts we have seen the development of the modern state (even the totalitarian state). Yet, perhaps as a reaction against the rise of the state, human beings have developed an ever-greater respect for the individual, and many people live a life of greater fulfillment than was ever possible in human history. Will computerized information gathering, storage, retrieval, and analysis lead to even stronger forms of authority than those witnessed so far? Some people raise the spectre of ubiquitous cameras, databases with information about one's every action, full-time monitoring of individuals, and a total loss of privacy; others (such as Kurzweil) hold that computers will soon become smarter than human beings, at which point all bets are off (will the machines treat us just as poorly as we often treat animals?); still others (e.g., the "transhumanists") look forward to that day as one of personal liberation and potentially endless life. Personally I don't know what to think. But I do know that the ancient Chinese curse applies to our situation: "may you live in interesting times"...


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