Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Dark Ages 2.0

Tunnel Would people in the midst of a dark age know that they were in said dark age? That question struck me the other night as I was thinking about the fall of Rome from the awesomeness of its empire to looting ground of “barbarian” tribes. When Christianity was first rearing its head as a significant challenge to Roman Paganism, the Pagan elite were terrified that the empire would fall to pieces if Christianity won out. But aside from the philosophical worries of a generation prior to any fall into the darkness of the dark ages, did folks within the dark ages have any sense that their ages, were, well…dark?

The next thought that struck me was, “holy shit, I wonder if we’re in our own version of the dark ages?” After all, if we were would we even know it? As my mind was racing through the implications of the question, I tried to calm down and see if there was some sort of quasi-object measure of the darkness of a dark age. Unfortunately that didn’t calm me down for very long.

Scanned CPU It didn’t calm me down because the measure of darkness that I decided to use as a hermeneutic was forgetfulness. That put me uncomfortably over an ideological picket fence with one picket putting me in a very vulnerable situation. In other words, the implications of forgetting as a measure for the darkness of a dark age seem directly correllated to the optimism of positivists like Kurzweil. Consider stonyhill’s recent post on our own blog. He and I have conversed quite a bit about what it might mean to be able to write down everything–one possibility is that if we can write down everything we can also forget everything.

So, I wonder. Does specialization mean setting up for a dark age? Before we get deeper into that, let me break down the correllation between forgetting and dark ages. Why is forgetting a workable measure? If we look back at our most recent dark age (roughly 1000 years from the 5th to the 15th centuries), we discover a milenium of forgetting. Medicine, agriculture, architecture, philosophy, language, mathematics, science, physiology, astronomy, all forgotten. More than 2000 years ago philosophers in Alexandria understood the circulatory system, the steam engine, argued for a heliocentric solar system, developed the geometry text that was used for the next 1000 years. Most of that knowledge was lost, forgotten, only to be re-discovered in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As Jackson’s intro to The Fellowship of the Ring says: “Much that should not have been forgotten was lost.”

So, we come to it. What do we know? Of the things in your day to day life, the things that you have to have to survive, how many of them do you understand? I thought about it the other day. I can’t fix my car, my computer, my cell phone. Can’t grow enough food for my family. I don’t know how to make clothes, hunt, couldn’t make tools, or repair a powerstation, or water plant. Don’t know any basic herbs or healing. The vast majority, the vast, vast, vast, majority of what it takes to sustain my day to day life has been written down and forgotten, at least by me.

I’ll ask again. Is this a new dark age? Dark age 2.0? Are we on the front end of an age of momumental forgetfulness?


  1. Your post raises a whole host of tantalizing questions/thoughts for me. I will list the ones that I remember;)

    1. What is the exact relationship between writing and forgetting? It seems to me, in a naive sense, that writing often serves to store information in a place other than our minds. This means that when we need need said info, we must remember how to access it (read/ask someone to read) and to have access to where it is stored.

    However, we have to take into account the difference between information and experiential knowledge. You cannot write experience in the same way that you can write information. It is one thing to read about how to deliver a baby. It is quite another to do it. Thus, in order to have a full eclipse of know-how, we would have to lose (at least) both information and embodied knowledge. It strikes me that we lose the latter not so much through writing as through specialization and/or outsourcing.

    2. The label “dark age” comes from the en-light-enment. The cards have already been stacked for us against this earlier period. But it is interesting that while you name the “dark ages” an epoch of forgetfulness, the knowledge you name lost, is the very knowledge that you claim opens up the path for forgetfulness (i.e. language, mathematics, science–all disciplines that require writing).

    So perhaps the Greeks/Romans set up the dark ages in the same way that the enlightenment put the planets in motion for our own eclipse. And if this type of knowledge precipitates its own demise maybe it is not worth remembering.

  2. If we’re not there yet, maybe there’s something we can do about it. If we are there but we can’t know, then does it matter?

  3. And yet, writing gives us the “right” to not have to know something. Sadly we’ve confused a repository of knowledge with a repository of experience.

    “So perhaps the Greeks/Romans set up the dark ages in the same way that the enlightenment put the planets in motion for our own eclipse.”

    I don’t think there’s any perhaps about it. The logocentric revealing, the neurotic posture of accumulation, paved the way for this kind of fall. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much to say that Plato is directly responsible for the dark ages (though this should be understood as ‘Plato’ namely the Plato who was rendered to those ages by Augustine).

  4. I think that a more pressing task than pin-the-anxiety-on-the-philosopher is to pin-the-anxiety-on-late-capitalism. [Not to say that we won’t take Plato’s name in vain here too]. For me this would be analogous to the shift from Newtonian physics to quantum physics. We took a quantum leap with information technology. It changed writing. How?

    I think that answering that question will give us a better read on our radar blip than an appeal to the Greeks. But that’s probably just because I am finishing a 10 hr stint in front of my computer screen, getting ready to take a break by watching TV online.

  5. I’m taking a leap here, but I think that the present is always in flux. Dark Ages 2.0 is only one of our possible futures. Now, it may be (like you said) that we’re already there. In that case, realizing that we are in the Dark Ages, realizing that our rampant forgetting is a serious setback for culture, science, etc., we can assume a different posture. One of memory, one of remembering, or re-learning. This brings me to the question that I’ve had a fair bit of difficulty trying to answer.

    What’s worth remembering? And if we’ve already forgotten, how do we (re)discover it?

  6. It changed writing by making it ubiquitous. Infomation is no longer precious, expensive, useful, or unique. In fact, we the last ten years has seen such an explosion of information that culture is beset with a strange dilemma: too much information. Knowing what we are supposed to know is as difficult a task as actually learning those things. It’s easier not to know. To write (inscribe) everything outside of us. To forget everything.

    My phone remembers contact information, my email account keeps track of my appointments, people’s birthdays, all of my correspondance. My online bank account keeps track of all my purchases.

    I bring Plato into this because he (when I say ‘he’ I don’t mean just him, but the zeitgeist of Philosophical Greece that was captured and shaped by him) put us this track. You have to know where you entered the labrynth in order to find your way out.

  7. I agree with you in many ways. We most certainly use writing to store information so that we don’t have to bother with it. The cell phone is a great example. I can’t imagine having to remember all of those contacts! Or what about e-mail or twitter? Can you imagine having to remember the addresses and names of all your online chums?

    But think about these types of information: phone numbers, e-mails, even driving directions and airline prices. This is not just “much more of the same.” This is something radically different. Hyperreality is not just the dissemination of signs, but the murder of signs.

    I don’t want to be too sensationalist here. I do think that there is, in some ways, continuity with the past. And we can learn a lot from history. But I don’t think we are not in the same labyrinth anymore. Perhaps what I am getting at is not so much a “no but . . ” but a “yes and . . .” YEs writing and logocentrism do lead to forgetting AND we have to pay close attention to the way writing functions today, in contrast to earlier manifestations.

    However, there are a few thinkers out there (e.g. Umberto Eco) who are heralding a return to the middle ages.

  8. Geez, please replace my double negative with: “But I don’t think we are in the same labyrinth anymore.” If I can’t even agree with myself, why do I dialogue!?

  9. Sorry, maybe a stupid question here, but aren’t signs in and of themselves ‘the murder of signs’? And if so, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the unlimited dissemination of the sign is the absolutized murder of that same sign…?

    Curious about this continuity/discontinuity bit in regards to history. Can you say more?

  10. Good questions. Thanks for pushing back. Here are my tentative answers:

    1. Signs are not in and of themselves the murder of signs. The murder of signs is the collapse of the signified into the signifier–the disappearance of the “sovereign difference.” Put another way, the murder of signs is their realization. Thus hyperreality is a state in which all our dreams are realized, so the realm of dreams is annihilated. The precession of simulacra (infite dissemination of ‘signs’) is a way to maintain hyperreal hegemony; to “deter every real process by its operational double.”

    2. The history question is a bit more difficult. For now I will only say that I don’t believe history works like dominoes. That is, we can’t go back one domino at a time to find the one that started the collapse. There are two reasons for this: a) Causality is not a given. At the very least it is a web, and not a line. b) New technologies and new gods bring new realities.

    This is not to say that historical pursuits are not valid. They are. They work on some level. I just think we should throw in a few more variables.

  11. Check out this post for reasons not to use the term “Dark Ages.”