There is a building in Herculaneum (buried at the same time as Pompeii) called the Villa of the Papyri. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the villa’s library was packed up for safe removal, only to be overtaken by the volcano’s pyroclastic flow. When the library was first uncovered, eighteenth century archeologists discovered carbonized chunks of what turned out to be 1,785 ancient papyrus scrolls. They soon recognized that they lacked the ability to unroll and decode most of the carbonized books, so they left them for future generations in the hope that progress in technology might one day allow their decipherment.
Imagine their excitement. We lost so much with the fall of Classical Europe. Of Sophocles 123 original plays we have but seven, nearly every one a masterpiece. What are the odds that none of the others was the equivalent of Oedipus Rex or Antigone? Imagine a world in which the fall of civilization left you Shakespeare's Hamlet but not Macbeth or King Lear, or where the early history plays were kept but we lost all of the great tragedies, and you have some sense of what may have disappeared.
Much of what was saved from antiquity was saved by the narrowest of margins. Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book The Swerve recounts the story of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, which he credits with kick-starting the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance. His views on the importance of Lucretius may be something of a stretch, but On the Nature’s survival depended on a single copy found in a German monastery.
How many great plays, how many perceptive histories, what great philosopher and how many beautiful poems did we lose? How many of them sit as a carbonized chunk in Herculaneum’s library? And not just literature. Recent years have seen the rediscovery of a brilliant mathematical work by Archimedes involving the first use of infinitesimals. The work was recovered as part of a medieval palimpsest, where monks had scraped Archimedes’ original writing off the parchment (very conservation-minded, those medieval monks) and written over it to turn it into a prayer book. The restoration of ancient Greek brilliance awaited infrared imaging conducted within the past decade. You can see this beautiful work of preservation at http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/.
I was thinking of this the other night while dining with my old friend (and ASCO board member) Dr. Robin Zon. Robin related a recent conversation with her daughter and her daughter’s friends. You might think that the generation currently in their teens and early twenties would have, not only greater facility, but also greater comfort, with what has come to be called “the Cloud” -- that vast, amorphous collection of data, located who knows where, that our digital world increasingly relies on for its sustenance. If you grew up surrounded by the Cloud, would you not trust it, as a fish trusts water? Not even pausing, perhaps, to consider its existence: “What’s water?” said the fish.
Robin tells me that the answer is no. Her kids, and their friends, distrust the ghostly dance of photons. They distrust its distant, anonymous masters as well. They still like the realness of hard copy, and regularly print things out.
It got Robin thinking about her old books. She has a house full of them, as do I. Should she throw them away? What if those server farms in wherever go down some day?
This isn’t just a question for packrats. What if, Pompeii-like, the pyroclastic flow of some great social catastrophe barrels through those server farms? Might not the Zon household, or the Sledge homestead, become the new Villa of the Papyri, preserving the works required to reconstruct modern civilization?
Or to preserve civilization from the ever-present barbarians waiting to tear down that which we hold most dear? Before you laugh at this preposterous mix of egomania and paranoia, recall a simple object lesson. In 2009 owners of the Amazon Kindle who had downloaded George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm woke up one morning to discover that the works had been removed from their devices. An ownership dispute had erupted, and Amazon, without permission or explanation, carried off already-purchased works with the click of a mouse.
Orwell had suffered a deliciously ironic, and, well, Orwellian elimination from cyberspace. Others had long since considered this possibility, of course. Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, in which the job of the fireman is to burn books, may be dated in its technology but not in its concerns. Tyrants everywhere still practice heavy-handed censorship of books and web-based content. Orwell and Bradbury are their frequent victims.
And even in the absence of such totalitarian impulses one can imagine scenarios, in which all the photons carrying our heritage might vanish, prey either to neglect or catastrophe.
I told Robin that, should civilization collapse, neither of us was likely to be around to re-boot civilization. And even if our libraries survived (there are remarkably few volcanoes in Indiana to cover them with ash), what would the archeologists find?
Let’s return to the Village of the Papyri, which may be instructive. Using exquisite care and modern multi-spectral imaging techniques, it is now feasible to decipher the ancient texts. Among the works recovered are those of Caecilius Statius, a second-rate Roman comic playwright, and Philodemus, a mediocre Epicurean philosopher. The villa’s owner had an extensive collection of Philodemus. It is as if, after the second fall of Western civilization, future archeologists decoded a data disk containing (drum roll, please) “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and the collected works of Deepak Chandra.
The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon is credited with Sturgeon’s Revelation, which states “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” And 90% is an exceptionally generous judgment in the digital era.
Robin’s kids, and mine, are a transitional generation (I know, all generations are transitional). Their discomfort may reflect the sense of impermanence we all feel about the Cloud and modern technology. Twenty years from now their kids may have neural implants connecting them to the ever-expanding infosphere. What happens then? Something unimaginable.
And as for the Villa of the Papyri? The archeologists still have several hundreds of papyri to unroll and decipher. Maybe we’ll get lucky and some of those lost plays of Sophocles will show up. And maybe -- this idea appeals to me as a lover of books -- when time ran out and the villa’s owner ran for his life, just maybe he snatched up the best scrolls and carried them away, leaving Philodemus and Caecilius Statius behind. He probably thought he was saving the good stuff, not imagining the unimaginable future of multi-spectral imaging.
What, after all, did he owe us?