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.
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?