PART ONE: ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY
I was looking at Celtic armor work tonight: Parade Helmet 350BC, Gold Torque 400BC, Waterloo Helmet 100BC (would originally have been golden w. red glass studs) and I remembered a conversation with a colleague last year or so on ancient machinery and ship sizes. Here are a few of those items: The Nemi Ships, The Antikythera Mechanism, Hero’s steam and wind machines, and The Baghdad Battery. The piston pump, Archimedean screw pump, ballista, true dome (based on the golden ratio) and other such technology is more familiar, and are found along with navigational, time keeping, engineering, and metallurgical tools of both miniature and grand scale throughout the Mediterranean, including adjacent India & the Middle East and the Western empire. The Chinese had seismic detectors, matches, paper and moveable type (of course the Egyptians had papyrus, and others wrote on leather, and tooled lettering indicates something similar was universal or unnecessary – look at ogham writing), cast iron, drills, suspension bridges, natural gas as fuel, magnetic compasses, raised relief maps, propellers, crossbows, south pointing chariot (chariot with built-in compass that always pointed south not north), and gun powder. Ancient navigation is now known to have been indisputably global in every sense of the word, and there’s enough evidence for global communication, trade, and cultural exchange that only an obtuse naysayer could keep waving it away.
But of course, none of these are the most significant technological possession of ancient man. It’s the math. Incredibly advanced mathematics which, if they did not result overnight in the ipad nonetheless resulted in things that the average American college kid couldn’t explain on a math quiz. We’re talking about stellar math, in both senses of the word. And that’s not ancient aliens talking – I’m not offering an opinion – it’s fact – you either are aware of it, or ignorant of it, but the fact is still right there.
I find it fascinating to look at the detail on that parade helmet or that torque, and realize that it was not simple grunting and polishing until it came out right over weeks and weeks of mindless labour that produced such things. It was a general mathematical sophistication – a math sense – the kind that only comes from a generalized education that draws in a variety of practical subjects ranging from human anatomy, geometric symmetry, and calculation (mathematics) ability, as well as metallurgy, engineering understanding, and other scientific senses. Remove ‘academia’ as a quality from education, and you’ve got an example of the ideal education in that parade helmet – a general education that far exceeds that of our high school honors students, despite their being certain that ancient man couldn’t possibly be way ahead of them on such things. Remove the academia, the footnotes, the cross references, and modern kids are illiterate dunces by comparison.
An old college professor and I were discussing the other night that there are 3 myths that modern man cherishes but which are anti-scientific about ancient man:
- that Homo sapiens was the only intelligent, tool-making, language-using, culture-bearing (read soul-possessing) hominid (we’ve really good science to the contrary)
- that Homo sapiens never crossbred in significant numbers with other hominids (it happened all the time – they were more like different ethnic groups, not different species – we’ve got really good science that demonstrates this conclusively, even if people still have their heads in evolutionary assertions that are, quite simply, out of date even if still in the textbooks – I remember Piltdown man and spontaneous generation, by the way, so I’m well aware of how people can stomp up and down about “what we know” when in fact, it’s crap – I’ve met them years later still insisting that even the forgeries were real – like those who kept giving to Jim and Tammy Baker after the fall)
- that more recent man is uniformly more advanced than more historically distant man (obviously false given that the West painted itself blue and lived in caves for quite some time – when compared w. the Sumerians, it’s an odd claim that the direction of technological advancement has always been upward – the historical record does not match the assumption – we could spend time on the urinals and steam baths of Byzantium and the stench of the English if one likes, but it’s just unnecessary – history is replete with examples – you can only fail to trip over them if you’re already on your arse)
PART TWO: OUTRAGE
The stuff is fascinating but it also is deeply disappointing and outrageous.
I was selling books the other day and discussing illiteracy with a buyer. When de Tocqueville toured the American frontier, he wrote that he couldn’t find a shack on the farthest reaches that didn’t have a copy of both Shakespeare and the Bible (the King James – you know, the one junior claims he can’t understand). Ask a school kid and he’ll tell you people “were barley larnin thar letters and rithmatick” but it’s not so – it’s mythology. It’s like believing what you see in a movie or read in Hawthorne is actually what happened – like history includes the cave men of Geico or the Vikings of Capital One. Look at what kids learn at Thanksgiving. They don’t know jack about the pilgrims, who drank and partied, according to scholarship that’s now 25 years old. And no, they weren’t thanking the Indians. Not that the politically incorrect fundamentalists have it right either – no self-respecting Pilgrim would spit on today’s megachurches. They had prayer books, robes, candles, and liturgies, just like Wesley and Luther did. That aside, John Quincy Adams said that national illiteracy at his time was 1/4 of 1%. Functional illiteracy was rated in the 1980s at simply 1/4 (25% for those of you who didn’t larn rithmatick).
The whole direction of historical understanding with scorn and lofty superiority is simply the historical version of ethnic supremacy. It’s racism with time swapped for parentage and bloodline. And each kid that sops that slop up is a little Goebbels in principle without realizing it. Dickens wrote, as a child, a history of England that you couldn’t get away with assigning as reading in today’s high schools. Parents would start riots over requiring unrealistic standards of literacy. It would belabor the point to go back and describe the mediaeval model of education and what ordinary beginners had to learn just to remain at a desk. Today, you get people who talk only in blocks of ideas they’ve been given pre-packaged, like the person the other day who said “Well, you know, capitalism…” They can barely complete sentences correctly. That one ended in ellipses, because she couldn’t remember what she’d been told or ‘educated’ (conditioned) to accept. Superiority without effort. Dismissing whole blocks of time, culture, and experience without even any actual knowledge. Without literacy. Things dismissed for the sake of mood.
Today’s education is merely illiteracy given the credence once reserved for authentic knowledge. Ideology takes the place of knowledge. The student even dismisses knowledge as inaccessible if not inferior to ideology. It’s no different from what passes for religious indoctrination in fundamentalist circles. In fact, it’s no different, hate to say, than the ‘education’ given Reich students where the mythos of our place in the age, our relation to history and its participants, and the relation of ideology to knowledge superseded anything like the actual understanding possessed by endless examples of ‘ancient’ man. It is thought that ancient means barbaric, but take away the window dressing – unplug the iPad and strip away the Calvins (which don’t take much technology to create, by the way, and are still made by slaves as garments once were in some ancient cultures), and you are left with punks. That’s right, we’re a bunch of snotty punks, that a Celt in the 2 centuries before Christ would look at as ignoramuses.
PART THREE: MODERN MERIT BADGES
I see all those bumper stickers with “My kid is an honors student at such and such school.” In other words, he can barely hit the level of beginning literacy. He’s above average, and not a complete moron. But seriously, it’s like bragging about being the fifteenth Yugoslavian postal carrier. So what? You know how many of those bumper stickers they print? I got a gold star too. The people I see generated with the academic equivalent of epaulets on their shoulders and medals on their chests are of middling or passing intelligence. Sure, they’re brighter than average, but that’s a commentary on the average, not on their brightness. In fact, while I’m not going to dig into it in this post, a combination of specious ideology, failed logic, and misinformed generalizations tends to make a dunce out of any academic star. It’s like getting a badge for being most corporate-minded in your cubicle or office. Really? Do you know what that award really means? Does someone have to tell you? It means you’re excellent livestock. Really superb. No, not particularly wise. Maybe cleverer than average, but then look out at those cubicles – that’s the average. Whoopdeedoo as they say in the Midwest.
Arrogance, utter arrogance of an intolerable kind. You think *I’m* being arrogant? What do you call someone who dismisses millennia of diverse cultures as “primitive” in comparison to himself or herself? Arrogance isn’t calling bullsh*t on the entire edifice of attitudes and assumptions that spins that myth from cradle to grave. Arrogance is the petit historical imperialist supremacist who keeps pretending we went from monkeys to caves to pyramids to King Arthur to penicillin to the ipad. That’s arrogance, because actual arrogance depends on ignorance.
PART FOUR: TESLA
I figure a good place to start the humility is learning just about anything about Tesla. The guy who gave us the electrical outlet you’re using to read this (A/C current). It’s common to associate any mention of Tesla with conspiracy theories. For that matter, most people are ignorant about that topic too, as if all of it were opinion and there were no conclusive facts. Arrogance always dismisses without actual knowledge. It depends, as we said, on ignorance. Always. Arrogance is never awareness of knowledge in the face of ignorance – it’s rather unawareness of one’s own ignorance in the face of reality. Tesla, though, demonstrates that we are *still* to this moment not living according to the level of accessible technology.
We’ve primarily channeled technology (you can call it science, research, or whatever you like – I’m using the archaeological term) – into directions of warfare, entertainment (which is a compliment to warfare – you need it to keep us lulled – like infants being handed jingling keys to play with – if you’re going to effect a policy of perpetual warfare), and control. Primarily the latter. The effect of technologies of control are easily observable in multinational corporate weapons trade, multinational corporate energy, multinational corporate food, multinational corporate medicine, and multinational corporate finance. It’s a running joke that we were all supposed to be riding around in energy-efficient hovercars by now and living on the moon – like the Jetsons. The reason we’re still driving around in little combustion vehicles and picking up bacteria from our shag carpet and diseases from mad cows is that the technologies that Tesla was working on (based on the math Tesla was using) were either dismissed as eccentric, funneled into black ops projects, or sublimated into technologies of control. Think of them like early, physics versions of the internet and social media, in terms of their potential for the world.
Don’t believe it? How would you know? What, exactly, do you know? Anything? Or are you dismissing it in ignorance? So who’s arrogant? We’ve got really good social policy analysis on how this has been done with more efficient food production technologies, more efficient energy technologies (most of my websites run on wind, by the way, so don’t poo poo that as “not actually possible until we’re living like Star Trek in some distant age), more efficient medical technologies, and certainly more efficient social technologies for diplomacy and financial justice for more people. We are constantly sublimating, dismissing, or funneling away more effective, more efficient technologies.
Hell, I’ve spent half my life in a place where a man is judged by the size of his truck, in which he is the sole passenger, and which he gladly pays $100/week to drive saying he wouldn’t take a train even if it were free and faster, either one or both. Tell me that ideology, superiority (pride), arrogance and ignorance haven’t directed those decisions to benefit a few on behalf of a willing, livestock trophy-winning, merit badge-sporting many. It’s just what energy multinationals long to hear. But they’re using inferior technology, older technology, more primitive technology. Something that 200 BC Celt would probably regard as stupid. People whose people go on to procreate and thrive keep pushing the envelope – they’re constantly improving. *Those* are the smart kids. Not “hey, I’m sharper than an ancient Celt – I’ve got Facebook” – no, Facebook might just make you an idiot. Can you describe the engineering principle used in a suspension bridge? Do you think in the 9th century the whole world was peeing up against a barn? Most of us are half an idiot, to be fair.
Until we dispense with the historical, archaelogical, ideological, and anthropological myths that keep us from taking fair stock of ourselves, our ancestors, and the world, we will continue, I contend, to yield to bigotries that foment arrogance and culminate in livestock roles under technologies of control, including social technologies and cultural engineering. Remember Veruca Salt in Dahl’s Willy Wonka? Or Harry’s cousin Dudley in Harry Potter? Both were spoiled kids who wanted to be told they were the brightest and best, that they were uniquely fit to ascend above others, and that no one else was really as good, generally speaking. We are like that, like Veruca and Dudley, when we cling to the 3 myths mentioned in part one (above). And it does us no decent service to delude ourselves with these things. Our culture suffers from a deprivation of many things that were common in the ancient world (like genuine shame that isn’t confused for unhealthy guilt, and genuine grieving that isn’t confused for unhealthy loss of perspective, just to name a couple), and we could do with quite a lot more cultural humility, whether in regard to differences in ethnicity, ethos, or time. We are not the best. Most of the people saying that can’t do the math that was well known to ancient man. Someone they’ve heard of can, sure. Maybe some distant cousin. But they can’t. Or they can’t do a host of other things. All the while stamping and saying we’re unique, we’re superior, and we’re naturally fit to ascend.
Besides that, we’re missing out on some really cool knowledge, and the ability to use it in our thoughts. Once we quit assuming things, we create the possibility of actually knowing things. It’s shocking to me how many people can’t distinguish an opinion from a fact. You tell them some historical thing occurred, or some object exists, or whatever – and they act as if they were encountering an opinion that they’re entitled to disagree with. In effect, they reduce all reality to opinions, and effectively construct a neurotic pseudo reality around them. A collection of things they “decide” to believe. As if belief and reality were synonymous. As Lewis Black pointed out, you’re not entitled to your opinion – you’re entitled to your informed opinion. That’s a distinction between an opinion about a fact and the confusion of an opinion with a fact. We may not agree, Lewis and I, on everything – so what – at least he gets it. Your opinions (and mine) really have no bearing on what’s there or not there. “Well I think men were mostly agrarian…” It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter what I think. They weren’t. Or they were. But it’s one or the other. The inability to think at all (again, not going into wider topics like epistemology and Aristotle’s 3 laws) is a hallmark of the arrogance we’ve overlaid upon historical certainty. Just back to Tesla as an example: you don’t get to have an opinion on whether Tesla gave us A/C. You get to accept it, or be ignorant of it. It’s not offered as an opinion. All right, so we can piddle around about the particulars, but the point is that a thing either is or isn’t so. A or not A, to briefly cite Aristotle.
The average school kid (and the grown up version is just you and I, so it’s not really about kids – it’s just being a bit more polite to any probable demographic who might read this), can’t even reason out the basics of the most obvious equations. He can “learn” them in the sense of memorizing, like the quadratic equation, but he can’t tell you what they mean. A or not A. A thing either is or isn’t so. The law of the excluded middle – required in compliment to the other two laws of thought, of course. Where “primitive man” (a mythological creature I could argue, for the sake of argument, didn’t ever exist, not really – like the so-called “Dark Ages”) was busy doing metathinking (generations of people doing it in succession), we are lucky to get through school with a bit of rote memorization, which is all our understanding of history is – the memorization of conclusions and supporting reasons parroted from others who are parroting still others who may or may not actually have thought. Thought becomes a pass the buck exercise in a chain of people offloading the obligation or duty. Conclusions are in vogue, thought is passe. Mythology becomes superstition, and superstition becomes rote, even about the things we feign precise knowledge of. I wrote at the Rules of Work blog about someone parroting the “a thing only has the value of what someone will pay” nonsense and, without reference to any other theory of value, it is mere superstition. It isn’t knowledge and certainly isn’t wisdom. It’s not even clever. It’s a moo, in response to other moos.
Look at that helmet, that torque. Those shouldn’t be there. That 1st century BC astrolabe shouldn’t be there. The battery shouldn’t be there. Hell, we shouldn’t have ancient printing presses. Remember, that wasn’t invented until *much* later! In our era. The era of pop-everything. The world is big, and one more example of that is ancient technology, along with its implications for modern attitude. Sadly, I’m not seeing much effect.