The May 26, 2006
What is the single most important human invention?
My latest online fix comes from http://video.google.com. Like a lot of Web
venues, it's mostly schlock, but schlock that appeals to somebody; that appeal
helps sustain the distribution of some high-quality stuff that otherwise would
never get out. To get to the nuggets, I search for 'google engedu'. The clips
are full 45-minute lectures by some of the smartest people around. Makes
Pinfeed folks queasy, but it's good to know what's coming down the pike, even if
you don't intend to rush out and embrace it.
Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine fame spent an hour this month telling the Google
audience about The Next 50 Years of Science. Somehow, that turned into a recap
of the scientific method, but whatever he wants to ramble about would probably
be ok. The fellow is Mr Rogers For Geeks.
It seems there is very little literature on the development of the scientific
method, so he gives us an entertaining overview, beginning with a survey of the
most important inventions. Thoughtful people will propose an interesting list
of stuff: hay (token of organized food production), rudder (ocean navigation),
electrical current, paper, printing (related to paper, but much more difficult
to conceive), antibiotics, computers, the Web, search engines, etc.
Mr Kelly makes the interesting anthropological observation that China invented
just about everything interesting and useful prior to 1500. But once Europeans
began to really exploit what we now call the scientific method, they took over
the technological lead decisively. The teamwork and intellectual rigor demanded
by the scientific method seem to trump any individual effort, no matter how
innovative. The key concept is that the scientific method recursively refines
its process, so the better it becomes, the better it becomes at getting better.
Without mentioning the scientific method in particular, Ray Kurzweil explores
this recursive process of technological refinement in The Singularity is Near.
As information becomes more available, and our processing of it faster, it
enables us to acquire yet more information and faster processing. Exponential
acceleration inevitably results in a mathematical singularity, where the result
of a calculation approaches infinity. Kevin Kelly mentions the Singularity, but
I think he hasn't read the book, because he suggests that it's a crank concept
related to a religious rapture. In fact, Kelly's lecture could be a thumbnail
intro to Kurzweil, right down to his sketch-graph of technological acceleration.
The q/a session raised the issue of an asymptote of human knowledge; this
question is at the core of the Singularity.
So, what is the most important invention? My candidate is the alphabet.
Language is what makes us human; food production was key to developing
civilization; writing provided an important abstraction layer, so we could use
language across space and time. But those things were apparently inevitable
developments, because people created them several times, independently and
remote from one another. But there's only one alphabet. Yeah, I know, there
are Greek and Cyrillic and Hebrew and so on; but they all start with
'alpha-beta'. Every other writing system has a graphical component that
specializes it - there is no way for the uninitiated to guess the sound of a
Mandarin syllable by looking at its written presentation. But the graphics were
stripped out of the Phoenician alphabet long ago, so it simply represents the
nearest approximations of individual sounds. That makes it applicable for
transcribing any language (glossing over issues of tonality and timing). It
means that any transcription from any language can be indexed and 'alphabetized'
for retrieval. It means that anything humans can say to one another can be
serialized, digitized, broadcast, stored and remembered, with very little loss
of context. The alphabet is ridiculously simple, just 20-some symbols that can
easily be memorized by a 5-year-old. But that simplicity is key to the precise
communication required by the scientific method, and it's a critical abstraction
on the way to even simpler encodings, like Morse and binary.
And there's a wonderful Pinfeed aspect of the alphabet: like a QWERTY keyboard,
it's 'good enough'. If humanity were to redesign it with the benefit of
hindsight, we'd order it properly, with all the vowels and plosives and
fricatives together in groups, and there would be exactly one letter for each
sound of every language. And like Dvorak keyboards or Esperanto, nobody would
use it. It's the very pliant, abstract, re-usable nature of the letters that
make the alphabet the wonder that it is.
Please add a comment.