Saturday, November 08, 2003

Friday Five

Gord's turn to suggest the topic:

I've just thought of this question, and perhaps it will be torturously difficult to answer, but... I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, a stunning alternate history that raises many questions about history, religion, culture, meaning (and how humans make or find it)... and offers some beautifully thought-out answers or possibilities to these questions. It's a wonderfully crafted novel, and I highly recommend it.

On a more literal level, the novel asks the question: What would have happened if the Black Death had been so virulent, and so alien to Westerners, that it had wiped out 99% of humans in Europe instead of only the mere third of Europe it killed off? The result is a stunning weaving of speculation, understanding of human nature (for European colonialism could possibly have been carried out, differently, by other empires, and surely something comparable would have been if the West had been thus destroyed). I think it's a powerful way of looking at our myths about the goods and bads of Westerners, by examining a human history absent of Westerners.

In any case, I want to save that for my review of the novel. But I will say that it has gotten me thinking about questions of historical inevitability. Consider the printing press: while movable type was a stunning idea and the key to the success of the Gutenberg printing press, the Chinese had already invented a kind of print press with movable print blocks. It's even sometimes suggested that the Western printing press traces back to the Chinese, in the genealogy of technologies. I think it's reasonable to say that, given paper and alphabetical language, someone would have figured out this movable-type print concept eventually. Maybe not for a long time (though we have no reason to think so), but eventually.

To your mind, which five other innovations in history are those which were basically inevitable? Which events do you think were simply bound to happen, and if they'd not happened as they did in our history, would eventually have happened elsewhere or elsewhen, even in the face of something like one of the major world civilizations (along with its technical contributions to the long and intercultural ferment of the development of technologies) having been completely wiped out?

(Please note that these could be technical, philosophical, religious, social, or other innovations. I don't only mean technologies.)

1. Prostitution / Pornography / "Sex Work" - There's a reason prostitution is refered to the as the "oldest profession."

2. Birth Control - Women are going to figure out a way to keep from having one baby after another. I guarantee it.

3. Intoxicants - Do you really need me to explain this one?

4. Weapons of Mass Destruction - War and aggression seem fairly inevitable, and so do weapons races of some kind. In an alternate universe, those weapons might take a different form, but I think humans will always be one upping one another in this department.

5. Democracy - Maybe I'm just an optimist. It does seem likely to me that eventually, in every society, people will get tired of being pushed around and will demand a say-so in how their society is run. Of course, it's also inevitable that some groups will continue to be excluded, only to demand their own civil rights in due time.

Honorable mentions: the baby sling, conspicuous consumption, algebra, "New Criticism," and fanfiction.

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