Rethinking The Renaissance

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things in new ways

If you're reading this, you're among the brightest people in the world. So let me ask you a question. Why didn't the Renaissance start sooner - say a thousand years sooner?

There's no point in asking the man in the street. Half the population believes in ghosts, and way more than half put their faith in an assortment of gods and prophets - supernatural super heroes straight out of the Dark Ages.

And it's not just the man in the street. It extends to the students in the universities. Years ago, I asked a class what they thought would happen when computers started thinking? Might an intelligent machine turn on its creators and annihilate mankind? Curiously, the idea was seen as being so preposterous as to be funny. I was assured that humans could always "Pull the Plug", and that we would never be foolish enough to make something we couldn't control. This was, I should add, at a time when the USA and the USSR shared a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction aka MAD.

As it happens, that intelligent machine I mentioned is right around the corner. The singularity is indeed near. But, getting back to my question, why did it take so long? Why has the accelerating rate of change, the exponential growth of technology been so predictable? No doubt you've seen that perfectly drawn curve moving up faster and faster. Futurists (such as Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey) put us at approximately a quarter century from all Hell breaking loose. The point at which Pulling the Plug will no longer be an option and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride will commence. Just look at the graph.

I don't have to tell you about that perfectly drawn curve. It took a very long time to go from the cave to the agricultural revolution. But then not nearly so long to go to the industrial revolution, and hardly any time at all to find ourselves surrounded by iphones, ipods, ipads and I don't know iwhats. In fact, if you think about it, that perfectly drawn curve is almost suspiciously perfect. If you absolutely, positively need a god to give meaning to your existence, consider the Deus ex Machina. I swear it's almost as though there's some spooky force that's kept technological progress in line - a perfectly drawn line on a sheet of graph paper.

Why, for example, didn't the Romans do more with all they had? They had close to a thousand years of peace and prosperity along with their version of German rocket scientists - a bunch of Greeks. Now I know what you're going to say - exactly what I said before I thought about it: Each technological advance is built upon a previous technological advance, and it just naturally takes time to gain momentum. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all.

Perhaps I'm mistaken but - and this is right off the top - didn't the ancients use lenses to magnify the fires in their lighthouses? How much more would it have taken to go from there to a telescope and (turn it 180 degrees) to a microscope? See what I mean? And what about a steam engine? Heronas of Alexandria was half way there. Hook up one of his contraptions to a chariot and you're on your way down one of those expertly engineered Roman roads.

We went from an airplane to the moon in 70 years, and you're going to tell me they couldn't go from a steaming pot to a steaming locomotive in 700! And speaking of airplanes, why did we have to wait for two guys to shut down their bicycle repair shop and go to the cliffs at Kitty Hawk? I recall seeing lots of cliffs along the Mediterranean and they certainly had wood and fabric aplenty. We know they were interested in flight so why was a glider out of the question? And what about a printing press? We know they used signet rings and official seals. Was the idea of ink and type that much of a leap? Obviously, there are dozens of examples of advances that could have been made - should have been made - that for some weird reason weren't.

Look At It This Way

I am not a dope. I am reading the same newsletter you are. I am also not a fantasy prone personality, but I do have to wonder. A Roman Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep in 100 BCE and wakes up in 100 CE and notices not a single new invention despite all those ancients playing around with mathematics and chemistry, physics and engineering. So you tell me, and I'm serious, why did all those minds have to wait all those centuries for someone to finally say: Hey - it's the Renaissance! Let's get started!

Contact Dr. Mason with comments/questions at DrSBMason(at) aol(dot) com

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