11/02/2009

early ICT dreams

A comment in Yates' book on Bruno is about anticipating advanced communication technology by renaissance hermetics. Interestingly they themself had no idea about what they were dreaming about, they thought it was cryptology or higher magics. E.g. Trithemius' Steganographia, which was only recently decrypted, expresses an idea of ubiquituous, alphabetfree and private communication and suitably coding algorithms as if it's 16th century author would have somehow listened a lecture on computer science and try to get an idea of it by his renaissance concepts. Later anticipations are about online gaming and laptops, reconstructed in this facinating museum.

I find the way of the early anticipations very strange. They are much more detailed than I would expect, much more detailed than the general nature of the anticipated idea. About the later, the anticipators obviously could only speculate wildly. I would expect the opposite relation, e.g. like in the invention of human flight: First, the general idea was clearly perceived and then, over centuries, decreasingly absurd and increasingly working technologies build, from Icarus over Leonardo to Lilienthal. But early technology anticipations like Trithemius' look somewhat more like someone in the middle ages constructing grotesque structures of metal wheels, pipes, blades and grids, telling something about clocks or art, and centuries later one would identify that with some crude imitation of a part of an aircraft turbine. And perhaps this analogy is the core for understanding renaissance hermetism in general? They anticipated in a crude way science without knowing it. Imagine you would tell a bright, but uneducated kid about your work - searching the meaning of difficult texts, looking for terminologies and definitions, catching ideas and insights which suddenly enable one to perform real world tasks like looking under some planet's surface - the kid's playfull imitation would look very similar to renaissance scholars.

If parts of renaissance hermetism can be viewed as anticipatoric imitation of science, future science could regress into similar ways, as Herbert W. Franke told in the sad story of "Einsteins Erben". He tells how living in an environment mixed with advanced pseudo-autonomous technology could led people back into Plato's cave of a mentality consisting of fairy tales, rituals and taboos - like modern information technology may start to do. Then, the spirit of science would vanish, imitated fragments of memory of science would only exist as empty cult.