Had one of those digital conversations on Facebook tonight about a map. A bunch of people talking about how and why a certain map had never been made. I said they had been made, I was looking at one, I had it in a book on my desk. The conversation continued about how and why one had never been made, as if I’d said nothing at all. I repeated that I have one of the maps they all insist had never been made, in a book on my desk. But apparently the map in the book, being tactile and analog, did not exist. Facebook is strictly digital. Analog is of no use whatsoever on Facebook.
Everywhere I look in my office are books, everywhere. Must be a thousands of them. Hundreds more in the closet awaiting shelving. And piles of maps. Yet the only portions of all these intellectual riches that exist to Facebook are whatever Google has digitized. I can link to those.
When the Phoenician alphabet caught on and transformed writing–and reading–it rendered cuneiform obsolete. Cuneiform was much more difficult than an alphabet. Mastering it took years of training. Within a few centuries of the introduction of the alphabets, cuneiform stopped being used at all and by 200 BC it was no longer a living writing form at all. It was extinct. No one could write it, no one could read it, no one could translate even a word. With its extinction, went all meaning in the content in millions of documents, documents written in cuneiform stashed, buried, entombed or gracing ancient walls. All of it, hundreds of millions of words, were little more than strange looking geometric patterns etched it clay or hewn in rock or written in ink. For all intents and purposes, the entire written history of civilization in the Fertile Crescent until then had vanished. Nearly three thousand years of it gone.
Think of it this way: if a writing system is a technology, then a new, improved technology had rendered an older, less user friendly technology completely worthless. A Roman staring at a cuneiform inscription was just as mystified as we are now. Though we at least, have experts who can read it. They are few and far between, though, those experts. To the rest of us, cuneiform looks like triangular gibberish.
Books aren’t gibberish. We can read them easily enough. Flip one open and you can begin reading aloud instantly. But you can’t read and turn the pages of an actual book on the web, nor post them in Facebook, nor link to them in this blog. And unless I take a picture–and I won’t–you’ll just have to take my word on that map. But it’s here, in a beautiful volume published in 1996. Which was the year I began working in the Internet industry, and using email and the web, and within just a few years saw my library, my magazine subscriptions, my box of handwritten essays and journals, my thousands of photographs, hundreds of maps, and my entire record collection vanish before my eyes whenever I turned on the computer. Analog isn’t extinct yet, but it’s getting there.