Make no mistake, words are ammo.
In every cell of every living organism on the Earth, there’s DNA, which if you want to get technical stands for Deoxyribonucleic Acid. It’s a long double strand helix structure built using sequences of just four nucleotides; guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, which are usually represented by their capital letters in genetics. G, A, T and C.
We’ve settled on a number system which uses the ten digits, zero to nine, and using those basic building blocks in an agreed positional way, we can represent an infinity of different numbers. In an analogous fashion, different sequences made up of multiple occurrences of those four nucleotides can be used to describe an infinite number of biological configurations, from things a lot smaller than an ant right up to ones larger than an elephant.
What it comes down to, is that in every cell of your body, there’s a detailed plan of how to build an exact physical duplicate of you. Yeah, I know, one of you was frightening enough, God forbid an army of clones of you could be created. It’d probably be enough to get your friends screaming and running towards the horizon. It would mine.
The point is that while the clone would be an exact physical duplicate of you, it could never be you. It’s exact and very precise data about you but it’s just data, not information. It doesn’t carry your memories, your experiences, your first infant memories of events, watching those fireworks explode that night, the conversations you’ve had, the smell of your lover’s hair, the taste of that wonderful glass of wine, how you felt in the face of those occasional setbacks and your greatest triumphs. That fist involuntarily pumping the air when you’ve succeeded at something that was far from sure.
There’s a million things like that which DNA knows nothing at all about and never can. It knows nothing of the occasional sadness and yet the sometime joy of being a human being.
Consider that 3.1415 is just a sequence of digits, data, but knowing it’s the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, it becomes information which allows you to start measuring your world. In that same narrow sense, DNA is data but it’s not information.
You see, what’s really important about you are the ideas in your head. You’ve experienced various things as you’ve gone through life, and they are locked away in your memory, but it’s what you’ve come to think they all meant which has come to define who you are, your attitude to the present and therefore your attitude to the future.
Language is the transmission medium of thought and for most of human history, when people died, their ideas perished with them. It was like turning off a computer, which could never be turned back on and losing all the data on the hard drive. All that survived was what few ideas they’d passed on orally, usually to their children and we all know how well children listen.
You can carry information in your head about how to make and use a bow and arrow and impart it to someone else, who can then make one for themselves, but forget about anything to do with the square of the hypotenuse though.
The problem with oral transmission of data is that as it passes from person to person down the generations, it inevitably loses fidelity. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy which gradually loses definition until the final recipient of it dismisses it as nonsense. It’s exactly the same as that wry but very true joke that originated in the trenches of WWI France. A message passed by word of mouth from the front back to headquarters – “send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” – had turned into “send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance” by the time it arrived there.
For most of our history we used things like storytelling, rhyming poetry and songs not only as entertainment for the ordinary person but also I think in an attempt to preserve and transmit experiences and folk wisdom across generations. So often, there’s a kernel of information at the heart of them.
Inventive creatures that we are, we got around the problem in the end by developing written representations of spoken language. The letters of an alphabet are just that, letters. Put them in consensually agreed combinations, and you get representations of spoken words. Put those words into the particular structured sequences of your native language, and you get written language, and when you do that, data has yet again been turned into information. A person’s thoughts, feelings and ideas no longer had to die with them and could be accurately conveyed not only to their contemporaries but to following generations.
That invention of written language occurred several times in nearly all locations around the world where a stable agriculture-based civilisation arose. When that local civilisation went under, so did any understanding of what their writings meant. The information captured on various media became nothing more than enigmatic squiggles whose meaning had been lost forever. The reason for that recurring phenomenon was that the only people who ever understood the symbols were a scribe caste whose specialist skill was of no practical use in the new brutal world of a civilisation spiralling down into its own version of the dark ages. When people are fighting for their survival, there’s simply no time to invest in learning a skill that doesn’t help them keep alive.
What broke that cycle was the commercial exploitation of a new technology; the printing press. A barely literate peasant in Gothenburg could print one thousand pages of a book in a day, albeit the same page but he could do the same for the next page tomorrow. Compared to the average of three years it took to hand write a bible, Fritz was always going to put the scribes out of business. Like all new mass production applied to an old problem, it caused a plunge in the price of the commodity, which led to its own problem.
It’s great being able to produce goods cheaply but you still need a market to sell it into. As fortune would have it, or perhaps it was driven by it, the availability of cheap books coincided with the emergence of a new social caste; the forebears of the middle class, who could not only afford the product but could also afford the time required to invest in learning to read and write. What they could do, they wanted their children to be able to as well. It was the nascent seed of teaching literacy to everyone. I’ve not seen any studies tracking this growth of literacy in the general population against the cheap availability of books, but I suspect there’s a strong lagging correlation.
Products of technology spread and flourish because people find them useful and books were no exception to that basic imperative or they wouldn’t have survived. You could find out from them why your crop was failing or how to grow a bumper one. They taught you how to make things you needed or how to do things better. Above all, what books did was give useful ideas legs.
For the first time, a person’s ideas or thoughts could be captured with perfect fidelity and in a compact affordable physical form that a person could transport not only beyond their physical locale but down the years as well. Unlike statues, monuments, great buildings, impressive wealth – they could travel. You no longer had to trudge across the desert to the shattered visage in the sand, to learn of the existence and vanity of Ozymandias.
Books were the delivery system and ideas were the payload, enabling the exchange of knowledge across the whole world. They and their offspring of journals, newspapers, magazines and every other piece of printed material, when combined with the growth of widespread literacy, are I believe the explanation for the unprecedented technological explosion of the last few hundred years and the resultant increase in the standard of living.
The application of the adjective unprecedented to that geometric expansion in progress really doesn’t do it justice. My grandmother was a young woman when she read of the Wright brother’s flight. She lived to watch with wonderment and delight a human being walk on the moon. At no time in human history have we seen change at that pace and it’s going to accelerate, so hold onto your hat Dorothy, because Kansas is already a distant memory.
The book, dearly though I love it, is going to die because we are now in the foothills of the next evolution in the delivery system of ideas; the internet. I won’t mourn too deeply because I know that particular death is just a transmigration of the encoding of ideas. It’ll take all the beautiful books into it though perhaps not their distinctive papery smell. It’s the message that matters not the medium, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. In newspeak, it’s all about content, what value the ordinary person places on what it means to them.
Those interesting, delightful, dancing ideas are just bouncing into human consciousness through a cybernetic equivalent of the old-fashioned local village square where people met and talked, except that square is populated by people from around the globe. You no longer need a physical book or to be physically there and what’s more, you can talk back to it. Anyone, anywhere around the world, can raise a topic of conversation and anyone, anywhere around the world, can join that conversation and add their voice to it.
A patriot, on being told he’d been sentenced to be executed for rebellion, said that when they could put an idea up against a wall and shoot it, they’d have beaten him. Since he’d already been gravely wounded, he was tied him to a chair before a firing squad and shot anyway. The reverberations of his words from beyond the grave and perhaps the grace with which he met his death, came back to haunt his enemies within a few short years, resulting in their rout. Once an idea is out into the world, it acquires a life of its own.
It lives or dies, dependant on nothing more than people adopting it on its own merits. You can kill a man, you can kill a race, a civilisation, a nation even but if their ideas had merit, they’ve escaped into the wild of the mind and are now well beyond your control. That genie is out of the bottle and you’ll never get it back in.
That’s why words are so powerful and in a believe against all the odds sort of way, that’s the penny candle of hope I lit some years ago when I became a blogger.
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