Ancient Times

On the plane home from New York last week I started reading Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve."

It's a book about 15th Century humanists who scoured monastic libraries to find copies of copies of copies of texts originating in Roman antiquity.

Huraculaneum papyrus roll

Not finished with it yet, but wanted to share some of the thoughts the book is provoking:

  • While by definition we live in the present, among contemporaries, we (those of us in Western technological societies alive today) may be naïve to presume that we continue to live in a modern or postmodern era. Art and architecture critics may have this right more broadly than they mean when they fix the modern in the 20th Century.
  • It is not necessarily the case that a new class of overlords will soon secure the keys to social media and use information technology to snuff out the free flow of information. Not necessarily. But looked at in an historical context, it is a bit embarrassing that those developing technologies that might empower and liberate individual human minds are companies, like Facebook, utterly lacking in humanistic ambition. (I think the Gates Foundation missed a huge opportunity when it failed to buy Twitter a few years back.)
  • History's lesson for authors is that an author's work must be copied in order to survive. Over and over and over again. In cultural circumstances she cannot begin to conceive. Don't put all your hopes in digital formats. Papyrus would be better.

Image of ancent papyrus scroll, copyright, The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments.

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