A really weird thought has been building in me for months. Have books been a bad thing?
Is this better?
If so – why?
If so – Is this the campfire of all campfires?
So what’s my argument?
Many people are convinced today that the birth of the web is making us stupid. That the web is only superficial. That only dense books can contain and spread real knowledge.
I am coming to the conclusion that the opposite is true. That books make us stupid and that the web, like the campfire and for the same reasons as for the campfire is what makes us clever.
So here goes. All our foundational knowledge was discovered around the campfire. Imagine you a hominid sitting around the fire at night. You are awake. You are looking at each other. I would imagine that at first, before we could speak, we sang or made music together. The fire elicited a social dance of interaction and community.
I think we can surmise that the campfire helped us speak and so it helped us become conscious. Something like this happened about 100,000 – 60,000 years ago. For suddenly our tool development, art and technology took off. All the foundations of our world today were discovered in a 10,000 year period. Tools had been the same for a million years. Within a 1,000 years they were completely different. We invented pottery. We invented metallurgy. The wheel. Everything we depend on was discovered then. Not only discovered but widely disseminated in a short period of time.
How did this occur?
My bet is that it happened because of the social process created by the campfire and by our hunter gatherer culture of equality. Such an environment extracts order from chaos. Design from intuition. It is ideal for the exploration of implicit knowledge. It is ideal for discovering things that we don’t know exist. It is ideal for taking half baked ideas and refining them. Let’s use a thought experiment.
How did pottery get invented? Surely no one said “Let’s have a project to invent Pottery!” How can you invent something that had never existed? No it must have happened like this – The People stopped for the night after a rainfall. The next morning, as they prepared to leave, the fire keeper noticed that beneath the coals that she was harvesting, the ground had baked to a crust. Maybe she could carry the fire in this thing – this bowl. That night as they shared the food around the fire, she told the people what had happened and showed them the “bowl” that she had lifted out of the earth the day before. And the conversation began – how had that been? Did it hold the fire well? What else could it hold? What if we put it back in the fire? Would it hold water? And on and on. Experiments were made. Some earth worked better than others. At the seasonal meeting with the Cousin Peoples, the People shared their story with the others and gave up a “bowl” as a gift their elder. At the next season meeting, the two tribes spent days sharing the stories of the experiments that they had been making…….
There was no peer review. There was no authorized way of doing it. No one was telling anyone. They were sharing and asking and arguing. They were having conversations!
But with the book comes authority. With the advent of the book, much of knowledge development stopped. Only the in group was allowed to play. What mattered was not observation. Not trial and error. Not experiment. Not sharing. But authority. Most of the accepted authority were texts that had no basis in observation or trial and error. Ptolemy, St Augustine and Galen ruled.
Worse because of the “Book” people who did observe or test were killed or persecuted. The Book stood for the ONE WAY. It spoke not you.
For a while, with the advent of the press, knowledge opened up.
But where did the great advances then come from? Did they come from the Universities? No they came from amateurs – from Natural Philosophers. Who met in clubs over dinner to talk about their work. Gradually, the “BOOK” came back. Only papers written and approved inside the authority system counted as being right. People outside the authority system were discounted.
Knowledge was seen as an explicit thing – an object. The Book was its metaphor.
But now with the web, we have a global campfire. Once again, we can play with ideas, with observations and experiments. Once again we can share with equals who will not knock us down. Even better, this time the group around the fire is not 35 people but all of us.
What new things will come from such a process? Surely amazing things. Things that could never have come from the use of books.
As a person who loves books, whose life is reading, I now wonder……