The Antikythera Mechanism is the oldest known scientific computer, built in Greece at around 100 BCE. Lost for 2000 years, it was recovered from a shipwreck in 1901. But not until a century later was its purpose understood: an astronomical clock that determines the positions of celestial bodies with extraordinary precision. In 2010, a fully-functional replica was built out of Lego. (See YouTube video here).
However, as I pointed out in Rapture For The Geeks, the abacus is the oldest “computer,” as far as we know.
500 B.C. – the Abacus
Technology and math have had a symbiotic relationship ever since Early Man’s first wife ran out of fingers and toes while counting her husband’s shortcomings and character defects. With twenty or more reasons she’d be better off with some other mug, Early Man’s wife used pebbles, stones, sticks, or other handy objects arranged in columns along lines drawn in the sand. The word “calculus” is Latin for pebble, and these arrangements of pebbles and other objects were the first free-form abaci (the plural of abacus and an important word in early Babylonian Scrabble games). Using abaci, our female ancestors suddenly became proficient at tracking dozens of compound male personality defects, multiple moral turpitudes, hundreds of failures to hunt, gather, bring dead gazelles home, and keep up with the Cro Magnon Joneses.
By 500 B.C. or thereabouts, the Babylonian wives had perfected the abacus—the first formal implementation of reusable hardware capable of calculating abstract data. Before that Early Man had used “counting sticks” or “tally sticks,” which were good for recording a single transaction by making notches on them, or perhaps for whacking the other party to the transaction in the head if they gave you the “short end of the stick,” but the abacus was the first true counting machine.
Any mention of abaci still reliably elicits the old chestnut about how a skilled abacus user can outperform most calculator-equipped college students, especially if the college students are American. However no one has yet pitted a skilled abacus user against a Cray XT5 “Jaguar” supercomputer.
As man evolved and gathered more wives unto himself, the complaints about him multiplied in number and kind. The spreadsheet had not yet been invented, so early wives relied on ever more advanced mathematical concepts and theories, including multiplication of complaints against Early Man and division of Early Man’s assets.
Eventually, the Babylonians and Greeks discovered important geometric concepts like the Pythagorean theorem, which states that in any love triangle, the square of the sum total of the wronged wife’s divorce settlement is equal to the square of the philandering husband’s assets plus the square of the other woman’s assets.
Later came algorithms and logarithms, which are extremely important to math and technology, but are also difficult to understand and explain, which is why the menial mental labor involved in understanding them has been outsourced to India and to Asian countries, where the people are clever and non-obese.
I spent my undergrad years painting dorm rooms to pay my tuition and graduated from college in 1976. I then decided it was high time to get an education,1 so I set about reading all of the books that I never had time to read while I was a working student. I lined the walls of a one-bedroom apartment in midtown Omaha with concrete-block-and-board shelves and soon amassed a formidable library of trade paperback books.
For several years, I worked a variety of 40-hour-per-week (or less) jobs and spent the rest of my time reading and writing. Maybe I was testing the truth of Augustine Birrell’s claim:
Any ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.
Happiness or no, in 1980, I decided to “see the world.” I read a fantastic book called The Art & Adventure Of Traveling Cheaply, by Rick Berg (out of print, as near as I can tell; a tragedy). The overriding message of Berg’s book was: Travel light. Everything should fit in one medium-sized backpack, including your sleeping bag and ground cloth (one long sleeve shirt, one T-shirt, one extra pair of socks, underwear optional).2 The book offered excellent advice, especially about traveling in the Third World (how to haggle with officials at remote border crossings, how to change money when there’s no bank, how to purify water with laundry bleach). And true to his word and his spartan rigor, Rick Berg told his reader to leave the travel book at home. Berg’s book was not a Baedecker or a Lonely Planet guide to be consulted during a two-week trip to Morocco, it was a manifesto to be read before leaving for months, or years. (If memory serves, the epigraph at the start of Traveling Cheaply is Tolkien’s famous observation: “Not all those who wander are lost.”)
I saved some money and collected the gear I would need for a year abroad. Then, before I left for Africa, I made one huge mistake: I gave away all of my books. A close friend of mine warned me that it was wanton folly to give away one’s personal library, but in keeping with the mantra of Traveling Cheaply I intended to purge myself of earthly belongings and wander the world unfettered.
I traveled in Africa and Europe for over a year, and upon return, promptly began reading and collecting books again. Now, almost thirty years later, my family and I live in a four-bedroom house with multiple bookshelves in almost every room. Because I’ve never organized the volumes, they tend to be grouped roughly into the time periods and interests of my life. So if I need a book from, say, the neuroscience phase I went through in the mid-90s while researching one of my novels (Brain Storm), I go to the basement and survey the shelf of brain books. It’s right next to a shelf stuffed with the anthropology books I read while I was researching another novel (White Man’s Grave). These books are often annotated, highlighted, underlined, because I usually have a pen or pencil in hand when I read.
Now comes the sad part. To this day, I wander to the basement (where most of the books from the 80s and 90s take up the better part of a long wall) looking for, say, Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow, only to realize after 15 or 20 minutes of searching that Humboldt’s Gift must be one of the books I gave away before heading out to Africa. I’ve never stopped to consider the almost archeological nature of this process, of excavating my past by poking through the books I’ve consumed, until I came across Nathan Schneider’s excellent essay, In Defense of The Memory Theater, where he describes the sensation of searching for a lost book:
What suddenly became most evident were the absences, the missing books I could hazily remember having read and digested, yet which would need referring to again. They had turned, terrifyingly, into phantom limbs.
These days, I spend well over half my time staring into a MacBook, reading or writing, but I have not yet made the leap to digital books, for many of the same reasons Schneider so alertly describes. The ability to make notes, to save and highlight passages, seems clunky at best on the Kindle, and I do not trust any profit-driven corporation and its obsessions with digital rights management (DRM). All I can be sure of is that they (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, or–horrors!–Microsoft) will always make it as difficult as possible for me to move or copy a book or a library from one machine or device to another. And if our mutual infatuation ends and we part ways, I have a pretty good idea who will end up with the books.
But Nathan Schneider’s essay is also an elegy for books. Let’s not kid ourselves. People who have never collected books, who have never wandered the memory theater looking for a long lost obsession, will have nothing to miss. While reading Schneider’s essay, I was reminded of Nicholson Baker’s Discards published in the New Yorker in 1994. Baker was bemoaning the loss of library card catalogues, because it also meant the loss of the painstaking, handwritten annotations that librarians and scholars had made on the cards.
I’ll await commentary from some young person who will assure me that they can search their digital library in a flash by typing “Humboldt’s Gift” into a search box and poof! There it is, annotations and all. I hope so. I’m just worried about who will “own” my memories five, or thirty, years from now, and whether it will be possible to stroll and excavate the memory theater.
And I sure miss my copy of Traveling Cheaply. Now that would bring back some memories . . . .
See Ben Ehrenreich’s excellent The Death of the Book in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.
You mean, other than turning us into mental hummingbirds, crazy for empty-calorie tweets and sugary serial blog links?
Dave Barry probably said it best:
The Internet is a giant international network of intelligent, informed computer enthusiasts, by which I mean, ‘people without lives.’ We don’t care. We have each other.
Or read David Carr’s Why Twitter Will Endure (“Yes, I worry about my ability to think long thoughts — where was I, anyway? — but the tradeoff has been worth it.”)
Really? Or is David suffering an attack of that whaddaya-call-it? cognitive dissonance, the first line of defense in the psychological immune system. Suffering builds character, so I like to seek out suffering whenever possible. I don’t think of Twitter as attention deficit, I revel in it as diversion surplus.
Better yet, read the letters to the editor (yes, they still publish those!):
To the Editor:
David Carr perfectly captures the impoverishment of the cultural moment when he suggests, “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.” The universe inside a soap bubble!
Bayside, Queens, Jan. 4, 2010
To the Editor:
I very much enjoyed the first 140 characters of David Carr’s article, “Why Twitter Will Endure.”
Northampton, Mass., Jan. 3, 2010
Why will Twitter endure? Because nobody has the time to be “present” in the usual way to each other, according to Joel Stein, Call Me! (But not on Skype):
I used my landline to call Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology. She told me people are not only uninterested in Skype, we’re also not interested in talking on the regular phone. We want to TiVo our lives, avoiding real time by texting or e-mailing people when we feel like it. “Skype, which was the fantasy of our childhood, gets you back to sitting there and being available in that old-fashioned way. Our model of what it was to be present to each other, we thought we liked that,” she said. “But it turns out that time shifting is our most valued product. This new technology is about control. Emotional control and time control.”