Analog vs Digital Knowledge interrupted by Suicide

Monday 01 December 2003 at 23:01

Over the weekend Sarah and I rented Winged Migration. Wings and migration are themes in my dream encyclopedia. The film feels like a step in the direction of what I was imagining. I was reminded of my early correspondence with Kim Veltman when I first articulated that dream.

I awoke early this morning and began catching up on my bloghopping. Seb bought my attention to an article by Valdis Krebs : What's Your Google Number?. To get a sense of it I googled for "Eric Dobbs" AND Veltman and found myself re-reading some of Kim's articles.

Veltman's got an ambitious goal: the restructuring of the whole of human knowledge. He's entirely serious about it.

From How it all began

As I reflected on the magnitude of what I had experienced I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and near despair. I had just had an incredible trip. I had seen more culture and civilization in three months than many persons in a lifetime. I had seen the great centres of Greek, Roman, and Hittite civilization. They were all in ruins. It wasn't as if there were just one or two sites that had fallen into a slight state of disrepair. They were ruins in the truest sense. My sadness and despair came from thinking: if this is how civilization treats its highlights, the best it has to offer, what hope is there for civilization?


It took me a decade to find a tentative answer. The highlights of civilization which I had seen, the temples at Selinunte, Agrigento, Ephesus; the colosseums at Arles and El-Djem; the theatres at Epidaurus, Segesta, Taormina and Aspendos were all physical manifestations of social customs and spiritual ideals. There is the spirit and the flesh. There is the human spirit and there are objects, which are expressions of this spirit. As the spirit evolves, the expressions change and the earlier expressions are reduced to being merely objects and are thus neglected and forgotten. The Roman custom of combat made colosseums necessary. But there was something fairly primitive in a custom that included feeding Christians and slaves to lions. So when the customs improved, the buildings of the old customs were neglected. Ultimately they became ruins because the ideas, the ideals, the spirit behind them was no more. And while they continue to have an historical value in reminding us of what once was, the real challenge lies elsewhere, focussing on the spirit rather than its expression, the soul of culture not its skin, the dreams. If the dreams are right, if the spirit has a true vision then the buildings, the monuments will follow. The monuments are not the civilization. They are merely expressions of a spirit and will crumble the moment the spirit moves on. Gradually the quest became to find the spirit of civilization, or rather to cultivate a spirit that could lead civilization in new directions.


Learning is one of the most fascinating aspects of culture and civilization. There is inevitably a tendency to learn about ourselves but not about others. Anyone who was not a Greek was a barbarian. The Romans built Hadrian’s wall to keep the so-called barbarians from Scotland at bay. The Chinese built a wall around their culture for similar reasons. Yet the memorable civilizations have been precisely those which transcended that limitation. Aristotle became one of the greatest persons of all time because he commissioned his best student, Alexander the Great, to help him learn about things in Persia, India and wherever he went. The library at Alexandria tried to collect learning from all known cultures. Arabic culture became great when a caliph at Gundishapur sent emissaries to the west to collect Greek and Roman culture. Today, the Vatican, Herzog August Bibliothek, British Library, Bibliothèque Nationale de la France, and Library of Congress are the greatest libraries of the world precisely because they did not limit themselves to learning only about their own culture.

These thoughts churned as I walked to the bus station. I wondered about the size of the gap between analog and digital knowledge. As a computer geek it's easy to fall under the illusion that everything interesting or relevant can be found with Google and persistence. But I suspect those five libraries hold vastly more knowledge, and vastly more important knowledge than anything Google can scour with its spiders. As we charge toward digital and away from analog knowledge, how much will we leave behind?

Charles Miller blogged about Etherial Memory

I am increasingly finding that the Internet is my swap-space. I've stopped remembering "things", and started keeping a catalogue of references to things. If I find I need the information, I have enough recollection of where to find it that I can access the Internet and swap it back into main memory. Luckily, I have a really good associative memory for context, which helps me come up with the Google search I need to track down data I've otherwise swapped out.

This sentiment is remarkably similar to lessons I learned by osmosis while working with Veltman. For millennia, scholars have been teaching the next generation of scholars how to navigate libraries and museums and how to document one's travels for future generations.

What we computer geeks are doing is mostly abandoning that legacy and reinventing it in digital form. Libraries are driven by meta-data. There are many, many systems to categorize books. In the US we use Library of Congress or Dewey. There are dictionaries to help one learn the terminology and jargon of different fields. There are indexes of major works. Bibliographies. Footnotes. Secondary literature. Encyclopedia. Meta-data by the ton. Veltman would like to encapsulate the millennia of scholarly meta-data navigation skills into a tool for the common man.


These thoughts were turning over in my mind. About a block away I noticed a fire truck turning into the bus station. Moments later I saw the express bus I was hoping to catch leaving the station in an unusual direction. As I approached I could see the fire fighters hosing down the bus's usual exit. The driver of the slow bus to Denver explained that someone had jumped off the top of the parking garage to their death. Thinking about what they were cleaning off the pavement sent a shudder down my spine.

I've been thinking about suicide and terrorists a lot lately. My instincts tell me that our fight against terrorism is completely backwards. Israel offers a continuing demonstration that force is ineffective in stopping enemies who are willing to kill themselves to make their point. I've heard the rumors about how Palestinian suicide bombers are considered martyrs and somehow earn points for their families in heaven. But humans have strong survival instincts. Suicide requires more than just a holy purpose -- in order to override their survival instinct people have to be deeply despaired and more scared of living than they are of dying. Adding violence on top of violence only increases the despair. It would be more effective to find ways to foster hope and reasons to live.