The babel of common sense

Rohit Gupta | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on March 09, 2018

Digital resurrection Chludov Psalter, ninth century. A monk whitewashing the face of Christ. Does it not resemble a selfie-stick?

Digital resurrection Chludov Psalter, ninth century. A monk whitewashing the face of Christ. Does it not resemble a selfie-stick?

How history moves against common sense, bringing ghosts to life

One of the fundamental lessons of history is that prevailing opinions and ideas (aka ‘common sense’) are almost always overthrown by epochal events. In his book Creating The Twentieth Century (2005), writer and analyst Václav Smil notes that “just nine months before Thomas Edison demonstrated the world’s first electrical lighting system, American Register concluded that ‘it is doubtful if electricity will ever be used where economy is an object — ’.”

Today global economy would be unimaginable without electricity, which most governments consider a basic human right. According to Smil, “this was the first advance in nearly 4.5 billion years of the planet’s evolution that led to the generation of cosmically detectable signals of intelligent life on Earth; a new civilization was born…”

Despite the fact that every key aspect of contemporary life arose from history against all probability, like magic — electricity, nuclear physics, powered human flight — it is soon normalised by common sense as if it always existed. Seen from that point of view, ‘common sense’ is essentially a collective hallucination of the eternal present, a feeling that things are as they have always been, a shifting goalpost and superstition which is also the chief aperture through which people observe reality.

It is not hard to imagine a world where energy is so scarce that taking a selfie becomes a crime against humanity, punishable by death, but it certainly goes against common sense. Even though similar phenomena have existed in history — namely aniconism and iconoclasm; whence it became taboo in Islam and Buddhism to depict supernatural objects (such as god) in material or human images, to the point that it led to death and destruction.

If someone were to even hint that civilisation will continue after the cell phone is obsolete, it would send people into paroxysms. They would throw stones if they had the opportunity, because anything that questions ‘common sense’ also questions the moral fabric of society. And yet the cell phone resembles a holy scripture more than anything else. Just as the holy books, whether it be the Quran, Torah, Bhagwad Gita, Avesta or The Bible, laid down the codes for human conduct (and are the main instruments of religious command and control), the cell phone controls our life with text messages: “your Uber is arriving”, “your Amazon delivery is on the way”, “your food is en route”, “connect your Aadhaar in order to ensure your bank account remains active” (this one is more like a serious threat from the Almighty).

The textual commands, which were earlier wrapped in a book, are now constantly around us on various digital screens, playing and tugging at our subconscious. And thus it is that the digital world resembles a kind of religion, which is entering material objects (there are plants that can text you if they need water).


What this means is that the cell phone and, indeed, the internet are new avatars of something that has existed for centuries — the book. The difference is that the book is no more inside the pages of a scroll, bound in leather, but everywhere around you and inside everything. What we may be witnessing is the rebirth of the book as its own universe. The pollution of the Earth will almost certainly obscure the stars, but the digital world is fashioning its own sky out of words. The cell phones are connected to “cells” or invisible hexagons, which transmit the electromagnetic waves that make up this infrastructure.

From this point of view the present resembles, more than anything else, a short story called ‘The Library of Babel’ by Jorge Luis Borges, in which he imagined the universe to be a vast library: “I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.”

In such a universe, an astronomer sitting on some page of the book, raises his telescope to the night sky, to look at and read from light years away — another distant page.


Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on March 09, 2018
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