|Seeding a Tree of Knowledge|
Where once there was a void,
Now at least there are
Seeds of splendor,
Becalmed belief for another time.
by Scott Hastie
Now at least there are
Seeds of splendor,
Becalmed belief for another time.
by Scott Hastie
Tweeting the Future: Thoughts toward Launching a Meme
Okay. So let's assume it's going down hard with a long, dark age ahead, on the order of centuries to millennia. Let's say we want to send a message to our descendants, if any. How might we send it, and what might we say?
Given that high tech media are not likely to survive, we're stuck with lower tech options:
- Social trasmission (institutional, hermetic, tribal, ???)
- Focused oral tradition (memorized) -- (songs, poems, stories, ???)
- The written word (engravings, impressions, durable books, ???)
- All of the above
In all cases, I consider it useful to think in terms of memes, ideas which are 'copied' in one or more media (including human mind and society). I'll speak of our message as a single meme, but it is more likely to be a set of memes.
A meme's success, per se, is determined by:
- Fecundity (high rate of copies) – Tell all your friends! Tell them now! Get them to do the same!
- Fidelity (accuracy with which it is copied) – Hi fidelity gets a message across, while low fidelity soon drifts from its intent (think the game of Rumor aka Telephone).
- Longevity (how long the meme is able to generate copies) – We're still reading the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi.
So how might we maximize the odds? Do we send out the naked meme as a podcast and hope it takes? Do we manipulate the message for better transmission? Or even 'encapsulate' it in a vessel (a book, say), that itself contributes to transmission? Or hitch-hike on an already successful tradition? Do we establish a medium, such as a hermetic sect?
My thoughts are evolving along these lines:
- The message should be fashioned concisely in 'scriptural', poetic language using simple, non-technical language. Prose? A poem? A song (the tune of Greensleeves is an ancient, musical meme)?
- It should be inspirational, and at best, useful (possibly as a teaching tool or mnemonic) during transition, both currently and in the midst of a dark age.
- It should be written in durable, portable book form, and also inscribed in stone and/or impressed in fired clay (or equivalent).
- Publication, distribution, memorization, transmission and discussion should be encouraged from the outset.
Scriptures are a tried-and-true method for bringing a body of information through difficult times with good fidelity. They replicate through both written and focused oral traditions, and are abetted by diffuse oral traditions (e.g., schools of propagation, discussion and debate). The feeling of higher purpose associated with scripture improves fecundity and fidelity.
If it is beautifully and compellingly written, it is more likely to have high fecundity. Especially so if it is inspirational and/or useful to persons immersed in a dark age. These should be goals at the composition stage.
Concision is a virtue on all fronts... being shorter, it requires less mental and physical resources for copying (improved fecundity), and is less likely to incur copy errors (fidelity). If it is more often copied into smaller, relatively portable physical media, longevity is enhanced.
Physical media which are both durable and beautifully crafted increase longevity. Holy books which are beautifully bound and illuminated are valuable property simply as objects, protected and treasured regardless of belief in their contents. Many have survived for centuries.
So let's look at some content/format possibilities...
Richard Feynman proposed this single, ingenious sentence, which 'unfolds', under careful inquiry, to yield all of physics (with all other hard sciences implied):
“...All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little apart, but repelling on being squeezed into one another.”
This sentence is deliberately NOT fashioned in compliance with current, scientific consensus in which 'Quantum fields' have supplanted 'Atomic particles'. But not-yet scientists starting from this sentence, have a good shot at figuring out quantum fields on their own, in time. The goal is not up-to-the-minute accuracy, but to provide an accessible starting point to an inquiring mind.
James Lovelock proposed a compendium in clear, unambiguous language, preserving all our knowledge, A Book for All Seasons. Obviously, this would be a BIG book.
Each has transmission liabilities.
Clearly, a tome is not concise, and loses all the advantages of concision. If we wished to transmit our modern knowledge base, memorization – or even understanding the whole – would be out of the question. Few of today's specialists can fully master more than even two fields of knowledge. What's more, the effort of composition and subsequent production would be immense, far beyond the reach of small fry.
A single sentence is more attractive, to me. It is ultra in most of the virtues; ultra-portable, transcribable, easily memorized even by the young. It's a little clunky, however. I suppose it could be written as a limerick?
All things are made out of bits
That whiz non-stop in a blitz.
Apart by a fraction,
They feel an attraction.
But push 'em together, they splits.
Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!
Here's a an attempt to mimic successful, albeit less mnemonic forms...
Thus spake St. Feynman
in the Age of Legend:
“All things compose of tiny bits;
atoms dancing without cease
Faster when warmed
Slower when cooled
Heat is tempo
Near, they attract
thrust close, repel
To observe the dance
is to change the dance”
Hear ye the seed of all knowledge!
Sow, and ye shall reap.
There... some poetic license and a hint of quantum physics. An improvement on St. Liebowitz, but still not exactly catchy. Is there a poet in the house?
Wisdom is tougher nut to crack. Its more vague and koan-ish, so is harder to unfold?. Subject to contention, too. But even among religions, Feynman's approach applies. Here's Jesus of Nazareth's summary of Judaism (arranged from KJV)...
This is the first and great commandment:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul,
and with all thy mind.
And the second is like unto it;
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.
Guatama Bhudda may win the brevity prize, summing his teachings with “Release all attachment.”
Point is, the concept isn't new, and we have some authorities to consult.
The problem with too much brevity is that, as a vehicle, it has low inertia. Why would a slave in the seventh year of the Warlord Vog pass this on? For that matter, would Vog or his flunkies - who might wish at least to appear wise - pass it on?
It seems to me that, for all its genius, Feynman's sentence or its variants, would have near zero fecundity. The Bhudda's may make it as one meme within an already successful meme set, but that hardly needs our help.
Even among my fellow geek friends, it gains no traction. If they've heard of it they love the idea, but none have managed to learn it by heart. They're hard pressed to remember its important features, despite that they're conversant with the principles. To someone marooned in a dark age, it would be useless and inscrutable blither. If printed on a waterproof card, it would be of better use to patch the roof.
But I think the approach is a good one.
Every line, verse or stanza – each the seed of a whole line of inquiry – would ease the task of those who follow. Each would confer useful knowledge from the very first steps along the path. And with a longer poem or shorter book, there's room to improve the hints, and build one upon the next.
I believe there is a threshold of critical mass, where mere weight of words gain enough gravitas to capture imagination, appealling at any stage of knowledge. They could gain the allure of a gnostinomikon; a book of knowledge, backed by actual science, to shame the grimoires of the past. Every mage who approached would be started on a true path.
Think what a smattering of infection theory might have done for those in a time of cholera? A few, trustworthy and select words to the wise would be invaluable. Only to read that there are miniscule, living creatures which can carry disease by contact, inhalation or ingestion... it doesn't take a medical genius to get from there to patient isolation, or to check the water supply, or to wash hands and dressings.
The scientific method itself -- our greatest invention -- can be drawn in a few words, and guide through the worlds of knowledge. (“Our greatest invention” from Lewis Dartnell). Scientific method, math and logic, physics, mechanics, chemistry, evolution, ecosystemics, economics, politics. All these in seed form.
With such a book in their hands, the great minds which inhabit all times would be put onto the scent, passing at a run the cold, blind trails of ignorance...
...on their way to Renaissance.
PS. There's a dark possibility to such a project. It may be that we'd be passing them a poison pill. The jury is still out on whether ours is the best of times or the worst of times. Without hard won wisdom to accompany the power this meme would carry, it might be like passing a live grenade to a baby.