Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thank Heaven for PCs and Laptops and Broadband!

I know I won’t be guilty of overstatement if I say that without the personal computer and the Internet, this little blog that I’m writing now wouldn’t even stand a chance of being written at all, much less get read across so many hundreds or thousands of miles by at least a few hundreds of people whom I scarcely know. Such is the power of the communication revolution spawned by what’s arguably the most powerful and most far-reaching twin inventions made by humankind—the computer and the World Wide Web—and it’s my good fortune that unlike some people my age, I was still able to catch up and make myself computer-literate and web-literate enough to make good use of them. Otherwise, I probably would be holed out right now in some poorly lighted library checking a hundred and one facts from any number of printed books for this essay, and you probably would be out somewhere in your town or city looking for something to entertain yourself—a theatrical analog movie or a billiard game or a carnival ride perhaps—on a muggy Friday afternoon like this.

This is why I thank heaven for the invention of PCs and the development of even faster and more powerful laptops, then for the subsequent evolution of dial-up Internet into Broadband—making it so much simpler, so much faster, and much more convenient for me to compose and share my thoughts and feelings with those who value them enough to read them. In a less technologically advanced time, I’m sure that most of these thoughts and feelings of mine would just wither in the vine, as the old saying goes—unwritten, unshared, unacted upon.

Almost eight years ago, the overwhelming sense of wonder I had felt over the personal computer and the World Wide Web impelled me to write the essay below, “The Tree of Life.” Since then, many of the technological marvels I had gushed about have become pitifully outdated or obsolete, but I can say without blushing that even in the face of so many more quantum leaps of modern technology over them, the sense of wonder I felt for them has remained undiminished over the years.

Here now is that long-ago essay of mine:

The Tree of Life

I have given it a lot of thought, and now I suspect that the original Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was not a living plant but a powerful computer. The Bible was surprisingly silent about the nature of that tree, so artists and writers through the ages had felt free to variously picture it as an apple tree, a fig tree, a pear tree, a dragon’s blood tree, even a banana tree. I understand that in a 13th century cathedral somewhere in France, there was even a fresco that showed Eve finding a serpent coiled around a giant branching European mushroom, the lightly toxic and hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria, drawn with Provencãl innocence to represent the tree that gave us our much-dreaded mortality. These images of the Tree of Knowledge are as charming as the Romans envisioning their messenger-god Mercury as a runner with winged feet, as frightening as the early Christians sketching the devil as a thoroughly beastly creature with serpent’s snout and bat wings, and as heavenly as the Renaissance artists conjuring archangels with majestic, blindingly white eagle’s wings.

All of this ancient imagery, however, miserably fails to capture the essence of a device or icon that is supposed to represent the most powerful source of wisdom and instruction the world has ever known. An apple tree, a banana tree, or a vine-like mushroom as the Tree of Knowledge? This seems to me to stretch the credulity of even a nine-year-old grade-schooler much too much! I would therefore rather think of the Tree of Knowledge as a Pentium 4 personal computer with a 56 kbps fax modem, hooked up by a powerful Internet server to the World Wide Web, capable of directly feeding on the 2.5 billion documents accessible to the Internet and of being able to sift through 520 billion more that are publicly accessible in other databases.* I could not think of any other compendium or structure, no matter how massive, that could draw on such a huge database and merit “Tree of Knowledge” as a sobriquet, much less make this database accessible to even the small populace of the Garden of Eden close to the time of Creation.

Of course I realize that a myriad conceptual objections can be raised against this seemingly whimsical intellectual construct. Chief of these is the question of how the Pentium 4 and the Internet could have gotten themselves into the Garden of Eden in the first place. Could it be that they had managed to quietly transport themselves back in time and install into themselves into the Tree of Knowledge, or else disguise themselves as the tree itself? Those fixated with time’s immutability would of course deem this too farfetched, as improbable as the tales of extraterrestrial visitations peddled by the Danish writer Erik von Daeniken. But it is at least not as preposterous a concept as a fruit tree being the source of all human understanding and wisdom. A tree as a source of life, yes, like our coconut with its proverbial one thousand and one uses, from food to shelter to medicine to fuel and to lumber; but just any tree as source of all knowledge, I really wonder.

And what about the paradox that would result if we believed that the Tree of Knowledge drew its power from a state-of-the-art Pentium? Would that belief still hold if we consider the fact that the computer and the Web are actually the culmination of the series of small and big inventions that sprung from Adam and Eve having eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge itself? Remember that the computer became possible only because somewhere early in time, man discovered and learned how to harness fire, then found a way centuries later to use it to melt the tiny particles of glass in sand into wafers of silicon, then developed a method for converting these wafers into transistor chips and into extremely powerful motherboards and processors that are the heart of the modern computer. Remember, too, that the Internet and the Web are of a much more recent vintage. It was only in 1973 that the Internet came into being, the happy result of American research into technologies to interlink computer networks of various kinds. Another 21 years into the future, in 1994, the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to unify and integrate the Internet’s global information and communication structure. Since then it has expanded into a global network of networks, enabling computers of all kinds—including yours and mine—to directly communicate and share services throughout much of our planet.

What is perhaps little appreciated in this dizzying train of inventions is that the modern computer and the Web have been essentially a continuing but silent Hindu-Arabic-European-American co-production, and that at the root of it was the ancient Indo-European language and the Arabic number system. We know, of course, that these twin foundations of our civilization moved into Europe and jumped across the English Channel into England, polishing themselves into the English language and into the Arabic number system that we know so well today. It really is no wonder that Boolean algebra, a mathematical system of representing logical propositions that became the foundation for the modern computer, was developed by the English language expert and mathematician George Boole in the very same soil that produced the wonder of English literature that was William Shakespeare. The Chinese may have invented paper, the abacus, and gunpowder, and the Romans may have built their empire that extended all the way to Africa and to the banks of the Mesopotamian River in what is now modern Iraq, but I simply cannot conceive of the modern computer built from Chinese script or from the Roman numeral system, with which no stable building taller than the Roman Coliseum could be built because the system simply could not multiply and divide numbers properly.

That the Tree of Knowledge could not have been a fruit tree but a computer linked to the Web may remain debatable, and I will not quibble with that fact. But to me, one thing is clear and certain: the computer and the Worldwide Web have made the Tree of Knowledge much more accessible and closer to us than ever before, and it would be a tragedy if not outright foolish for anyone not to learn to freely partake of its fruits.

From English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright 2008 by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

What do you think of my ideas in this essay? I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.


*Since this essay was written, of course, the Pentium 4 processor has been supplanted in personal computers by much more advanced and powerful processors like the Core-Duo, and Google has grown even more explosively from 2,469,940,685 web pages in 2002 to over 30,000,000,000 today. It can thus be said that the computing machines and the online search engine capability that I had described glowingly in this 2002 essay are now either outdated or outright obsolete. To me, however, they will forever remain a source of wonder for their immense, mind-stretching, and far-reaching utility as communication tools.

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