Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: November, 2016

Cold start

The rapidity of change has become proverbial in our world. We don’t seem to be able to change fast enough to keep pace with the innovations. Not only do machines become obsolete, but knowledge does too, maybe even our very brains. I can’t help wondering if our capacity to change has its limits; if the dilemma of constant change won’t someday lead us to jettisoning our whole mental cargo, like a sinking ship trying to stay afloat.

There are such individual acts of heroic despair in our midst. Think of an office-worker in the days of paper (not so long ago) who, despairing at the pile of unprocessed correspondence in his in-tray, took the whole thing and threw it in the wastebasket unread. Well, it still happens. Inquiring why someone has failed to responded to my last e-mail, I hear that the recipient had returned from a couple of weeks’ vacation and, overwhelmed by what they saw, emptied their e-mail inbox in just this way by clicking “delete all”. This sort of informational hara-kiri happens more often than most would people care to admit.

In the old days of computing with mainframes there used to be a “cold start” every so often. That meant that the system shut down for maintenance, and everything in process at the time when it happened would be lost. As a young computer greenhorn, I remember thinking: suppose everything in backup memory was lost too, and we had to start again from scratch? It would be catastrophic, but it would also be liberating. One night, in fact, I dreamed of evening rush-hour in the city. People were frantically hurrying to and fro. A friend I grabbed took the time to tell me that tomorrow there was going to be a cold start. That meant that everything would be over and forgotten. Everything. Contracts, guarantees, even relationships, even personal memories would no longer have any validity. There were only a couple of hours left in which to finish things up.

Now, in reality there could be no such conspiracy to delete the past. Apart from the case of harried users pressing “delete all” on their e-mail, no-one would ever take it on himself to pull the plug, to dump the entire past unilaterally. But suppose it was decreed by the powers that be – as arbitrarily as changing over to winter time on this or that weekend in October? People would go along with it, relieved at the prospect of casting their burdens from them. At two-o’clock in the morning it would be programmed to happen while they slept. Then in the grey light of dawn they would wander the city streets aimlessly, suddenly knowing nothing, turning blank faces to friends and colleagues of the day before, their eyes not showing so much as a flicker of recognition, and they would go into unfamiliar offices and boot up the empty computer systems. Since knowledge becomes obsolete anyway, the world would reason, why not do ourselves one big favour? What a relief! It might yet happen.


Cultures and the future

For a long time we have tried to understand other cultures by seeing them in relation to our past. When we look at exotic cultures – not just “primitive” ones either – we often see earlier stages in our own civilization miraculously preserved.

Sir William Jones was the great exponent of this approach in the 18th century. He went to India as a colonial judge, but he soon came to see India as a classical civilization like Greece and Rome, frozen in time: it still had its pantheon of gods, its schools of philosophy, its theatre, its learned language. Learned language? Yes, that was Sanskrit. Jones studied it, and realized that it was related to European languages. Indo-European linguistics was born.

Seeing other cultures as a reflection of our past is not a bad thing, because it allows us to appreciate them and see connections with ourselves. It makes the exotic familiar. But it also has its down side. We see other cultures as less far along the road of social progress than we are. They need time to catch up, we tell ourselves, and they will. The future means everybody else becoming like us. A comforting thought.

Yet there is really no guarantee that other cultures will want to become like us. Japan and China are modern, and India is to some extent, but they have no great desire to be like us. They have their own modernity. What is more, societies like China and India, since they have the population, represent the future of humanity. What if we saw them as our future – the future of our world?

In the West, we see the world in terms of history. There is the past, history, upstream; there is the present, cultures, all around us; and there is the future, downstream.To us, history is “our story”. It is the great series of myths that made us what we are, myths that live on in a timeless present-past, as Lévi-Strauss noted; history has the function for us that myth had in earlier societies.

We have always seen history as cumulative, as progress, leading up to ourselves. Yet the future is not necessarily what we would call progress. We can see that from the late Roman Empire. A Roman with an idea of the future would have had to resign himself to the idea that the Empire was finished and the barbarian tribes would take over. Few Romans, if any, did. They assumed the Empire was innately superior and would last.

Being aware of other cultures in the present is surely the one thing that can enable us to envision the future as more than a continuation of what we are doing now or the fulfilment of our wishes. By the way, the most important thing about the future is that it is not our future. Because we will be dead. There will be other people living then who may be our descendants, but they will not be us. The grim paradox of our humanity is that the future always belongs to others.

Editing the program

One of the great taboos has been about altering what is written. Always, when something was talked about, it was just talk, but seriousness and commitment were indicated by “putting it in writing”, the idea being that it could not easily be changed afterwards.

The immutability of text has been a commonplace since the Bible. Pontius Pilate declares “what I have written, I have written”. The author of the Apocalypse curses the copyist who might presume to change his message: “if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book”.

In later times, the permanence of the written was reinforced by the technology of printing. The book was printed and reprinted mechanically, not copied by human hand, and every copy was certain to be the same.

The more modern technology of the computer has, however, irreparably undermined the permanence of the written. Now we can alter the text as we please, as long as we have an editable version.

Indeed, not only can we edit discourse, we can edit language itself. Language is something given, passed down from generation to generation, and the paradox of it is that it is always changing, but no-one has the power to change it. Men have long been discontented with this givenness of language. Particularly in the 17th century, people like Bishop Wilkins laboured at creating artificial languages for science and philosophy. Yet they were never used. Later artificial languages like Esperanto did not meet with much acceptance either, though people always saluted the effort.

Today the editing of the language code seems much more possible. It can be found in artificial standard languages created by linguists. In many parts of the world, the requirements of mass media encourage the development of such standard forms to unite dialects that were previously isolated from each other. These new standard forms often meet with resistance from speakers, but the fact that they can be, and are being devised is a sign that it is becoming conceivable to change our language at will.

We are encouraged to go upstream and change the language code itself by the metaphor of the program in the computer, of course. It is in the nature of programs to be explicit, and so they can be rewritten. If we don’t like the output – what the program does with the input – we can always go back and change the program.

This has an even more momentous effect on molecular biology and genetics, which rely on the idea of a code or a program for life forms. We can now go back and edit DNA, introducing genetic variants, even creating new species. Yet we cannot help feeling uneasy about altering life forms, uneasy about meddling with a level of things that may not be allowed us. The Author of the Book of Life, we suspect, will not take kindly to our ill-judged editing, and we may draw an Apocalyptic curse down on our heads.

Greater Canada

Economic advisers to the new Liberal government have said that Canada should plan for a population of 100 million by the end of the 21st century. It’s got 36 million now, so that would be quite a jump.

How is it to be done? Given that the existing population are not likely to heed Japanese-style government appeals to “be fruitful and multiply”, it will have to be by immigration. Opponents are already pointing to the inability of the Canadian natural environment to sustain all the new energy-guzzling urban sprawl that would spring up, because that is what it would mean. The counter-position to a “Greater Canada” that seems to be emerging in that country is that of the Ecopop initiative in Switzerland, which tried unsuccessfully two years ago to persuade the voters in a national referendum to decree a limit on future immigration for the sake of preserving the Alpine scenery.

Immigration is the real issue whenever population projections are discussed, and Canada is no exception. What kind of immigration is it likely to be? It will hardly be from Europe, which no longer has much surplus population to export. On the other hand, there is plenty of potential population in the teeming Asian countries, in China and India most of all.

The pundits on both sides of the issue are assuming a nation-state of Canada stretching unchanged into the future, making its own decisions about its development in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. That is a naïve assumption. What is at issue here is not just the future of Canada, a nation-state that has only been around for 150 years and often threatens to fall apart. No, the stakes are much higher.

North America was always seen as Europe’s back yard. Basically untouched and all ready for development. A ready-made solution to the problem of surplus population.  (The native folks already there weren’t asked, but there were never enough of them to make a fuss.) Now  Europe has no more to say – it is no longer the motherland ruling New World colonies from afar.

North Americans thought of themselves as a race of pioneers who were going to create a whole new destiny and a whole new civilization for themselves. It didn’t happen. Instead we got an amalgam called “the Western world” on both sides of the Atlantic. Asia was not politically a part of this story. The only thing that came across the Pacific was the odd Russian admiral and his ships, and they didn’t stay for long.

Now what seems to be emerging at last is that North America is destined to be the place of encounter between Europe and Asia. Remember that Columbus, when he set sail across the Atlantic, was carrying a letter of introduction to the Emperor of China. The meeting never happened, obviously. But that was the original plan. Europe comes from the East, and Asia comes from the West, and they meet in North America.

All things considered, Canada looks like having a great future. But whose Canada? What kind of Canada? A Canada so different from the one we have now – with its built-in power relations and its dominant cultural look and feel – that we cannot even imagine what it will be like. So much for the grandiose plans of economic pundits who have difficulty figuring out what will happen next week, let alone in a hundred years’ time.