Neo Gutenberg - Chapter Two

Jayraj Salgaokar is the publisher and founder of Kalnirnay, India's largest selling multilingual publication. He has been a Marathi author since he started writing in 1976. He completed his post graduation in Economics from the University of Bombay in 1978. As an eclectic thinker, his interest in writing ranges from biographies, culture, economics, politics, socialand contemporary trends. In his book Neo Gutenberg, he pays tribute to the history of print through a contemporary lens.

15 Oct 2013 | By Jayraj Salgaokar

2 - Emergence of Knowledge
2.1 Phonological Writing and Mathematics
As great civilizations started flourishing around the four corners of the world, communication modes grew in different asymmetrical patterns. Traditional Hieroglyphic writings were patronized by the Egyptians while the Indian and Chinese civilizations promoted Sanskrit and logographic writings respectively. The four scripts that currently dominate global language patterns are Latin, Indian (Devnagri mainly amongst the many Indian scripts like Tamil, Pali, Kharoshti; by Indian, it means these scripts are originated in Indian subcontinent), Arabic and Chinese. After numerous evolutions and dissolutions of language forms, there is now a consolidation of sorts. This is largely a result of the European and Arabic conquest of the world as well as the massive geophysical presence of India and China. However, if we look at alphabetical origins, then the Greek alphabet can be considered as the world’s first true alphabet. The earliest known Greek inscriptions date back to the 8th century BC. (01)
The most definitive work we have on phonetic letters is The Alphabet by David Diringer. He begins his story as follows:
“The alphabet is the last, the most highly developed, the most convenient and the most easily adaptable system of writing. Alphabetic writing is now universally employed by civilized peoples; its use is acquired in childhood with ease. There is an enormous advantage, obviously, in the use of letters which represent single sounds rather than ideas or syllables; no sinologist knows all the 80,000 or so Chinese symbols … The alphabet may also be passed from one language to another without great difficulty; the same alphabet is used now for English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Turkish, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Croatian, Welsh, Finnish, Hungarian and others, and has derived from the alphabet once used by the ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. (08)

Thanks to the simplicity of the alphabet, writing has become very common; it is no longer an exclusive domain of the priestly or other privileged classes, as it was in Egypt, Mesopotamia or China. Education has become largely a matter of reading and writing, and is accessible for all. The fact that alphabetic writing has survived with relatively little change for three and a half millennia, notwithstanding the introduction of printing and the typewriter, and the extensive use of shorthand-writing, is the best evidence of its suitability to serve the needs of the whole modern world. It is this simplicity, adaptability and suitability which have secured the triumph of the alphabet over the other systems of writing.”
Greek forms the base for all European languages including Latin and later English. The evolution of the Greek language corresponded with the country’s rise as a global power; Greece formed the base of western civilization. As the country’s power waned however, the ancient Greek script got somewhat lost in time and remained untouched. Medieval Europe saw a resurgence of Greek when Erasmus, a theological humanist, mastered the language and published the Greek edition of the New Testament in 1513. As the flame of power moved from the Greeks to the Romans and later the Anglo Saxons, the Greek alphabet spread and helped in the evolution of most prominently spoken European languages like English, Spanish and French. The contribution they made to literature, myths, arts, mathematics and modern phonetics remains insurmountable. By this time, human civilization began to advance at a much faster pace than it had in previous generations. The gap between the inventions kept reducing. (08)
Another important discovery of the time was that of mathematics. Although it always existed, for humans to understand and utilize it in everyday life was a Herculean task. Even today, many people are hassled by simple situations involving numbers and calculations. Mathematics took a long time to grow out of mere finger counting and pebble sharing into a serious form of study. However, its lateral evolution added a new chapter to human history which consequently developed with the knowledge of mathematics. Mathematics occupies a uniquely crucial role in human society; it represents a strategic key in the development of the whole of mankind. In spite of being liked by few, found obscure by many and mastered by only a select group, without mathematical evolution we would still be riding a car the Flintstone way! The ability to compute in relation to the power of technology, its ability of social organization and the geometrical understanding of space-time shows the scientific and cultural role of mathematics in the history of civilizations and in the future development of the Information Society. We are confronted with the fruits of mathematical labour in every sphere of our lives, from the simple page numbers in a book to the complicated computing systems employed by computers. The evolution of mathematics since modern history has helped some civilizations grow and unlock universal secrets faster than others.
The Lebomo bone is the oldest known mathematical artifact. It was discovered in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland and dates to approximately 35,000 BC. It consisted of 29 distinct notches cut into a baboon’s fibula. Some other prehistoric mathematical artifacts were discovered in Africa and France and are between 35,000 and 20,000 years old; they suggest early attempts to quantify time. The Greeks developed the understanding of numbers which helped calculations of measurement, calculation as well as a systematic study of motions and shapes. Be it Euclid and Archimedes in Greece, Aryabhatta in India or Al Biruni in Afghanistan, mathematics was responsiblefor the surge in man’s logical and rational thinking. It added a completely different dimension to his personality. No longer were people physically and mentally affected by their limitations; they were guided by the absolute truth that is 1+1 = 2. * (01, 03)

(Artistic images of Euclid, Archimedes, Al Biruni and Aryabhatta)


2.2 Libraries and Universities

(Artistic image The Royal Library of Alexandria, named are conqueror Alexander the Great in Egypt)


The setting up of libraries was the first step towards allowing written scriptures to be a part of civil institutions like the judiciary, the administration, granaries, securities and others. The library offered a sanctum to teachers, scribes and readers to document and preserve scriptures. The earliest known library comprised of a collection of clay tablets in Babylonia in the 21st century BC. The Greek writers informed the world about the temple libraries that were set up in ancient Egypt. A sacred library was also housed at the temple in Jerusalem.The first public library in Greece was established in 330 BC in order to preserve accurate examples of the works of the great dramatists. (The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, named after the last king of the Neo Assyrian Empire, was an ancient library which kept clay tablets and scrolls that had been annexed by King Ashurbanipal. According to Persian folklore, the royal library came to Alexander’s attention and later served as inspiration for the great library of Alexandria. (07)The Library of Alexandria was the largest and most important library of the ancient world. It was founded by Ptolemy I in 300 BC and contained some 700,000 Greek scrolls. It was a public library that was open to those with appropriate scholarly and literary qualifications.

Aristotle’s disciple had once suggested setting up a universal library to hold copies of all the books in the world. Through the wide variety of books, Ptolemy and his successors wanted to understand the people under their rule. The library housed Latin, Buddhist, Persian, Hebrew and Egyptian works that had been translated into Greek. The Greeks and Romans had a great thirst for knowledge and made ample efforts not only to store the knowledge they acquired but also to ensure its rapid spread across the land. This played a crucial role in the rise and expansion of libraries and helped humanity acquire and impart knowledge. Unfortunately, these scholarly pursuits crumbled in the face of military conquest; some of the most respected libraries in the world, such as the ones in Constantinople and Nalanda were destroyed by religious crusaders and invaders. (06)
Another extension of man’s quest to acquire and impart knowledge was the emergence of mass universities. As mentioned earlier, the development of human civilization wasn’t proportional; a few pockets outgrew others by miles. Hence, quite a few claimants to possessing the oldest university in the world spring up. The Chinese University of Nanjing, founded around 258 BC, and Platonic Academy founded in 387 BC can claim to be one of the oldest formalized institutions of mass learning. These centres of collective learning created institutions where knowledge was accumulated and dispersed. They also played a vital role in the evolution of communication and its consequent impact on civilizations. Civilians formed groups and expressed a desire to gain the knowledge of available scripts. These institutions were not important from a merely academic point of view; they were the epicenters of modern and dynamic thought, a melting pot for scholars and thinkers alike.

Many brilliant thinkers and achievers emerged from top notch universities. Unlike today, there weren’t many places where such talent would be encouraged. The Platonic Academy (sometimes referred to as the University of Athens) was founded by the philosopher Plato in 387 BC in Greece and lasted for about 916 years (until 529 AD). During the Renaissance, it was emulated by the Florentine Platonic Academy whose members ran it in Plato’s traditional way. In ancient India, Takshashila became a noted centre of learning.

It attracted students from all over the old world who came to study and specialise in various fields such as vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, astronomy, commerce, astrology, music, dance as well as curious subjects like the art of discovering hidden treasure, decrypting encrypted messages and more. Takshashila continued to house eminent local and international scholars until the city was destroyed in the 5th century. Another academic centre in ancient India was Nalanda University, the ruins of which can be found in present day Bihar. Nalanda was a Buddhist centre of learning between the 5th or 6th century BC to 1197 AD. It has been called ‘one of the first great universities in recorded history.’ (06)