Posted March 12, 2015 at 11:00 am
It's that time again.

MAILBAG. Where Patrons send us mail and then we answer it in public. The few sacrifice for the many!

Just one question this week, but it leads to a big dang rambling answer. Hope you guys and gals enjoy.

You guys do tons research but what’s the most unexpected thing you came across? Thanks!

B. K.

Y’know, I sat down with this question a couples weeks ago and thought, “Oh, this’ll be easy.”

WRONG-O. But I’ve finally got an answer. It might be a big sprawly one, but here it goes.

It seems like we’ve always been working toward the internet. Not explicitly, I don’t think it was ever the plan, but an internet accomplishes a great deal of what every civilization was trying to get done. 

Now, it’s dangerous to look back at history and assign motivations or values that simply weren’t there. Or to argue for a grand scheme to explain the course of history. History isn’t even linear, not really. History is a network with billions of nodes that are all growing new nodes and every node is tugging on all the others forward and backward through time.

But what you find in every society, in every corner of the globe, throughout all of history, is a constant and practical interest in making both communication and computation faster and more accurate. And the more complex your civilization becomes, the more you need both of those things. Complexity demands greater and more specializations, and that means sharing more kinds of information with more people. The specialization then increases the complexity of your economy and you need more and better computation to keep track of all its moving parts and to coordinate the re-assembly of all that discreet specialized knowledge into whole working things from walls to roads to pencils.

The intersection of increased specialization with increased computation drives innovation. Think about it. If we’re individually responsible for all the ingredients of our own survival, there’s not a lot of time available to experiment. But if you have, for example, architects who don’t have to worry about hunting or growing food, then those guys have a lot more time to work out the art and theory of their trade. And the more they can model mathematically, the more experimentation they can do because they don’t have to use as much time, materials, and manpower/energy building prototypes to find out what works by trial and error.

And that’s happening in every trade. And then every facet of every trade.

Those innovations in increasingly subdivided fields of all human activity then drive the need for yet more communication and more computation. On and on.

So, at all stages of organization, we were incentivized to find more and better ways to communicate and to calculate.

“You mean to tell me the Egyptians were trying to build computers?”

Well, no. Not as we think of them. But wherever you find permanent structures, you find machines designed to output new information based on various inputs. They were far too specialized to be anything like a computer, but they are computing. The most obvious ones were calendars built to output the time of day/week/month/year using astronomical input based on observations dating back who knows how long because prehistoric societies used memorative arts to remember and to teach everything to every generation before someone invented the idea of writing it down.

The ancient world is full of devices that compute, from megascale calendars to compasses. But they were never computers as we understand them. The idea probably didn’t occur to anyone until Ada Lovelace.

People had been building calculators for ages. Babbage’s Difference Engine was just the latest in a line of mechanical calculators. His proposed Analytical Engine was another calculator, but one that could deal with irrational numbers. Babbage figured the best way to feed this machine information was via digital on/off bits of information read from punch cards. Babbage and the few folks who understood what he was talking about went as far as figuring out that bits could represent numbers and variables so the machine could work equations. It was Lovelace who made the connection that those bits of digital information could represent anything, any information at all, so the machine that could read bits and do work upon them. Properly equipped to express the output, the same machine could play back music, or display a book, or maps of the Earth, or an accounting spreadsheet.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so advanced that very few people understood its significance, and none of them were the people Babbage needed to help pay to build the damn thing. And Lovelace’s ideas about the Analytical Engine were even more advanced such that NO ONE understood them, not even Babbage. Or, if he did, the total math dork that he was, it never occurred to him that universal computability was at all interesting.

To put this into a modern context, it would have been Steve Jobs inventing the iPad and insisting it was only useful to do your taxes.

We’ve had binary for a few thousand years. And we’ve known for at least 500-ish years that the easiest way to make machines work on information is through binary -- it’s easier to design and less error prone to build ten different on/off switches than one switch with ten settings.

So, how often did this happen? Tesla had an innate understanding of electromagnetic principles, but we only know that because he was lucky enough to successfully express some of them. How many Teslas were wasted in history?

Babbage and Lovelace happened to be rich geniuses and happened to intersect each others lives, and happened to invent computers while solving some other problem entirely. And even then it’s another 70 - 100 years before anyone else understands their ideas enough to do anything with them.

Did anyone else figure it out before them? Someone unlucky enough to not be born rich? Or to be born before the Industrial Revolution? Someone trying to eke out a life despite the wild flashes of pure agonizing certainty that you can build a machine to work ideas the way a farmer works land?

Did I answer the question somewhere in there? Here it goes again: I did not expect to find every civilization working on their own versions of the internet. From writing to mail to the telegraph to email to texts. We’re just trying to be heard.