The Diggers

Flickr photo of short tailed shrew by cotinis

Guest blogger Paul Spinrad just some nice leftover pasta for lunch. 

As discussed, language is a lossy compression scheme. I think the most data of all is lost when language is used as a linear narrative, storytelling, to make the generalizations that we call history.

I read Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden in high school and haven't looked at it since, but the thing that stayed with me (and I may be distorting here) was his description of how mammalian intelligence originated. While dinosaurs dominated the landscape, our shrew-like ancestors survived underground. The dinosaurs could see and hear over distances, so they didn't need to create persistent models of reality– they just recognized and reacted. But "we" had to build and navigate underground tunnel networks and rely on internal mental maps of them. Our survival also depended on everyone sharing the same map and agreeing on how to maintain and build out the tunnels.

Today, when we turn this strategy towards empirical pursuits like scientific discovery or engineering, the behavior of physical reality itself helps to keep people in agreement on the tunnel questions, except at the margins. But when it comes to historical or moral "reality," there's no external anchor, and our species fights and dies over its conflicting compressions.

We also develop a primary, exclusionary narrative for culture, which is inevitably influenced by politics. So in a world full of creative expression, we learn formulations like, "after World War II, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York."

Last year I was on my bike, stopped at a red light, and saw a busker whom I guessed had no fixed address playing a nice old accordion. I asked him about it, and he immediately told me that he was mentioned on some page of some book– he actually gave me the page number. Here I was, a complete stranger, and the first thing he tells me is how he's connected into a shared structure that neither of us had anything to do with. Whenever we dig a tunnel, we want other shrews to appreciate it.

Photo from Flickr by cotinis