Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Emperor Ashoka: The First Blogger?

Some weeks ago someone on guild chat in ‘Age of Conan’ told us a little story about how ignorant one of his co-workers was. According to my informant, this fellow had said, ‘I’m not voting for Obama because he’s going to take our troops out of Israel.’

Aha, I thought. I want to be as ignorant as that guy!

So that is the goal I have been assiduously pursuing. I have not looked at a newspaper since then. I have deleted all my bookmarks to the sites of current affairs information I once religiously consulted. I have not turned the radio on. I am enjoying my new-found ignorance. It is liberating, exhilarating. Out there, things could be going as pear-shaped as they do in ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, but here it is all peace and beauty, green rolling hills, sheep, marking exams, and decapitating Picts in ‘Age of Conan’.

La la la la, I can’t hear you, stupid world.

I was quite chuffed that the one thing I did inadvertently hear about by word of mouth in the first week was something about a fistfight between rival groups of monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre- the antithesis of ‘news’ in that I could have heard the same story at practically any time in the last 1500 years.

Abstaining from the radio in the car is hardest. For a week or so I listened to Green Day’s ‘International Superhits’ instead, for an hour and a half each day. So I was very grateful when my favourite spouse-creature gave me, for my birthday, an 8-CD audio book, ‘The Story of India’, by Michael Wood. So, while I find the ignorance I seek, at the same time I am becoming more informed about other things, less ephemeral factoids that have stood the test of time.

The last book Michael Wood wrote before this one was apparently about Alexander the Great, so he drags the Greeks in whenever possible. For the state of affairs at the time of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, for example, he talks mainly about the impressions recorded by a Greek traveller named Megasthenes.

Either Megasthenes, or Michael Wood from some crumbs of information in Megasthenes’ account, makes a big deal about the fact that the bureaucracy of the Mauryan empire operated without any written records; that it was a ‘memory based society’. But by the time we get to the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, this is clearly not true: Ashoka’s place in history as a great ruler derives mainly from the blog entries (or edicts, as they prefer to call them) he had carved on stone pillars forty or fifty feet high and distributed throughout his empire, rather more frequently than Nato updates his blog. He seems to have been an enthusiast, getting in there and exploiting the possibilities of the new medium.

Clearly, someone was there to read these things. And from about the same time, there is a raft of other literature: the Arthashastra, the Kamasutra, lives of the Buddha and the Jain saints, etc. So in the space of a few generations something had happened that was more momentous than the coming of the Internet, more transforming than the invention of printing, more challenging to the existing social order than the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping.* And oddly enough, Michael Wood did not say anything at all about this transition from a pre-literate to a literate society. I found this very strange.

I haven’t reached the end of the CDs yet, so I don’t yet have a good feel for what Michael Wood is using as an unifying structure for Indian History. But if I was writing it, it would be a technologically driven narrative, and writing would be the critical driving technological advance, and these few generations would be *the* big moment, *the* critical transition.

Let us imagine I lived 3000 years ago in India and sat around wrestling with profound philosophical questions. What could I do with any answers I came up with? All I could do was tell other people. If nobody listened to me- if nobody knew what I was on about and the village called me ‘Crazy Old Clam’- then I would be stuffed.

So if I really wanted future generations to get my message, I would have to collect my young sons and nephews, who had to do what I told them, and make them memorise the contents of my blog. I would make them repeat it over and over again, until they got it right, and then make them solemnly swear to force their sons and nephews to memorise it as well.

The technological limitations on the transmission of knowledge would *force me* to found a hereditary priesthood, as the only way of preserving my message.

There is a terribly sad story in the first chapter of the book.

Apparently there is a ritual passed down among an isolated group of Brahmins in South India from generation to generation, which incorporates mantras which take several days to chant, and is so complicated and expensive it can only be done once every couple of decades. Michael Wood breathlessly explains that the mantras, on computer analysis, find their closest analogies in birdsong, and recklessly speculates that these interminable strings of nonsense syllables are a relic of humanity’s pre-linguistic deep past.

As if.

I expect these mantras are the sad, degraded, content-free results of a millennia-long intergenerational game of Chinese Whispers.

I imagine Vedic Age Clam gathered his sons and nephews, got them to memorise his profound philosophical musings, made them promise to pass them on in turn to their sons and nephews, and impressed upon them as strongly as he could that they shouldn’t change any of it, they should pass it down just as he had told them. Because if they did change it, then his profound musings would be misrepresented.

And I expect the Clam descendants did the best job they could. But in the third generation after Vedic Age Clam, let’s say the word ‘cogent’ falls out of polite usage, and is forgotten, and is replaced by the word ‘spluznar’. Do the Clamites simply replace ‘cogent’ with ‘spluznar’? Not if Vedic Age Clam has impressed on them sufficiently the necessity to keep his blog unchanged. They will explain for a few generations that ‘cogent’ actually means ‘spluznar’, but as these inconsistencies build up, there get to be too many things to explain, and the explanations have to get briefer and more cryptic, and are discontinued completely one day, and the Clamites find themselves reciting the meaningless word ‘cogent’ – or, after the First, Second, and Third Vowel Shifts, and some assimilations and palatalisations and other linguistic shenanigans, a string of syllables something like: ‘kyooshadoo’. All sorts of things like this will happen: words will change meanings, topical allusions will become meaningless, the pronunciation of the blog will start to diverge from everyday pronunciation… the language will evolve out from under Vedic Age Clam’s attempt to preserve his thoughts, and in time his diligent followers will find themselves reciting hour after hour of gibberish.

Poor Vedic Age Clam. :(

But since those few generations everything has been different. If I am one of Mahavira’s disciples, or one of the Buddha’s disciples, or one of the Four Evangelists, or Salman the Persian, I don’t need to found a priestly caste. I can *write down* what the master said. I can crystallize knowledge in a form that will persist even should my language become extinct, if there is someone sufficiently clever to translate it into a modern language, so someone can sit on the other side of the world and get a pretty good idea of what Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or Mahavira meant to tell us.

There has been no more significant advance in the transmission of knowledge than this. Everything since is just frosting.

Before, we had oral traditions, priestly castes, archetypal stories, and esoteric rites with obscure meanings. Afterwards, we have the Peoples of the Book.

* : From http://www.cs.trinity.edu/rjensen/theory/00overview/theory01.htm

Werner Sombart, a German economic historian, says, ‘... double-entry bookkeeping is borne of the same spirit as the system of Galileo and Newton" and "Capitalism without double-entry bookkeeping is simply inconceivable. They hold together as form and matter. And one may indeed doubt whether capitalism has procured in double-entry bookkeeping a tool which activates its forces, or whether double-entry bookkeeping has first given rise to capitalism out of its own (rational and systematic) spirit.’


Marco said...

See. That's the spirit! :)

Marco said...

I'm Sure I put a prediction of oil prices of $25 something US in 2010 sometime. Where did I put it?

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, I can't remember either. I'm sure you've found it by now! :)

Looking forward to emerging tentatively onto your blog in another week and seeing what madness has been going down out there in the 'real world'...

Marco said...

yep. Got it. Non-sequiturs are so hard to find :)

Anyhow - looking forward to your tentative exit from newslessness.

Marco said...

So. Is the information fast over?

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