Richard Fernandez's Witchcraft contemplates what happens when nostalgia for seventh-century modes of living destroy contemporary modes of inquiry.
When the last cellphone in the Caliphate is destroyed or worn out no one will know how to make another. Their 8th century is capable of producing fanaticism but probably couldn't make a ball point pen. Objects in the ISIS universe are "magical" -- put there by Allah in the possession of the infidel for holy warriors to plunder and enjoy until the power which inheres in them gradually fades away.

Surprisingly much of the modern world is not very different. Many people treat technology like magic even in the West. How does a cell phone work? Dunno. Where does it come from? The store.  Civilization depends on the knowledge of a small fraction of the world's 7.5 billion population. The know-how to make pharmaceuticals, complex devices, aircraft, computers, industrial chemicals from scratch is probably confined to a few million people concentrated in North America, Europe, Russia and North Asia.  The rest of us are end users.
Yeah, that sounds like counterterrorism, or perhaps counsel to leave the barbarians to choke on their own primitivism, but there's more at work.
If a global catastrophe destroyed all of civilization's works yet spared these few million they could re-create every object in the world again. By contrast if only these few millions perished the remaining billions though untouched could continue only until things broke down.  It is knowledge which sustains civilization. Of course knowledge is also stored in libraries against catastrophe. Or is it?  If universities began seeing science as old "white man" sorcery they might start purging it like ISIS does wizardry.
The first two sentences are the rationale for suffering through such things as the quadratic formula, subject-verb agreement, and Ohm's law in general education courses: different bits of those key ideas stick in different minds, and come the zombie apocalypse or the solar flare, emergent distributed networks of people can put something approximating their civilization back together again.

But the threat to the stored wisdom does not come from trendy multiculturalists; rather it comes from a misplaced confidence in information technologies.  The essay refers to an anguished column by a mathematician at California - Santa Cruz.  The paper journals go away, replaced by content on a server, such as J-STOR.  The paper books go away, to make space for bigger coffee rooms.  But which ones go away?  The ones researchers consult without checking out.  Seriously.
My friend Gildas, a biblical scholar, went to the Science library last week to consult an important book on ancient technologies. He had consulted the book several times before. Oops! De-duplicated.

Like me and many users of libraries, Gildas marks the place from which he takes a book and carefully reshelves it when he is done, saving the library staff reshelving work. The algorithm missed his book and now it is shredded or moldering in a distant storage facility.

A copy of Gildas’s book does survive. At UCSF. Its survival now depends, like that of our entire de-duplicated collection, on the kindness of distant librarians.

No chance was given to students or faculty to buy the books. Millions of dollars of public property was destroyed. A long-standing and painstakingly collected archive was removed to solve a temporary space problem.

The library “lost” the list of the books which it de-duplicated, so we don’t know which among them were rare or important. We are still waiting for the library staff to recover their list.

In the meantime: don’t reshelve your books.
Or reserve a carrel, and sequester the works you're consulting there.  Thus does this comb-out of the shelves punish researchers for being polite.  If it's locked up in the carrel, nobody can get at it.  If it's on the shelf, someone else has the opportunity to get at it.

Sorry, I can't resist tossing the following at the Trendy Leftists at Banana Slug U.

The book vanished into de-duplication, a nameless number on a list that was later misplaced.  That happened often in those days.

That would be particularly amusing if Pasternak's works are among the de-duplicated.

Do that too often, and here's what you get.
Basic knowledge is still relevant because "magic", even technological magic, cannot completely cope with the complexity of the world.  When tools fail, a man with knowledge makes another.  If that too fails, he makes still another.  A man without knowledge is confined to what he can buy in the store.  But there will always remain issues which must be regarded from first principles.
Lest we wind up like the protagonists in Atlas Shrugged, contemplating the ruins of an advanced motor that nobody in the starveling town understands, or like Galician herders in the Viking Age, going thirsty yet contemplating stone structures whose hydraulic principles they cannot grasp.


Dave Tufte said...

"... Galician herders in the Viking Age ..."?

I know where Galicia is. I know about the Vikings being there. I know there were aqueducts. But what's the whole story?

Stephen Karlson said...

The Romans left, taking their concrete knowledge with them. Earthquakes, wind, and rain damage no longer put right by tuck-pointing lead to aqueducts falling down. Galicians (and perhaps Moors) come across the remains of the structures and the fallen stones. They can work out the purpose of the ducts, but do not know how to gather the stones together.