That Orwell quote earlier this week that began “Our civilization is founded on coal” had a “pace Chesterton” at the start that puzzled me. A number of you wrote in with suggestions, including a pointer to a fascinating debate between Chesterton and Bernard Shaw about whether to nationalize the coal mines, moderated by Hilaire Belloc.
But I believe Mark Bernstein found the ur-instance of the Chesterton reference:
This is the true and exact account of the Great Cigar Fraud, and the moral of it is this–that civilisation is founded upon abstractions. The idea of debt is one which cannot be conveyed by physical motions at all, because it is an abstract idea.
So, what Orwell was really saying was: sorry, G.K., our civilization is not founded upon abstractions, it’s founded on the hard reality of coal mining. And thus Stroustrup’s reformulation — “our civilization is built on software” — takes us full circle, back to the many layers of abstraction that constitute our program code.
It all connects!
- December 12, 2008 @ 10:47:17 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- February 28, 2008 @ 14:44:49 by Scott Rosenberg
I wasn’t clever enough to use the British spelling in my googling. :P Assuming google found the item.
I think it’s interesting (and perhaps obvious) that Belloc seems to refute or mock Orwell’s point. Civilization may be founded on coal, but that’s a pretty weak conjecture since its dependence on coal was short lived. I guess you could go back to the discovery of fire as a key to the ‘founding of civilization.’ Wood, coal, peat, oil, tar sands, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion are all variants on the founding of civilization. Even fire or some energy source aren’t really the keys and that may be what Belloc was driving at.
Our civilization was founded on the ability to pass discovered or derived knowledge from one generation to the next. Language was probably the fundamental, though tool use seems to be something that other species transfer from one generation to the next, apparently without discernable language. Of course written language greatly expanded that ability to retain and expand knowledge through the generations. I guess it might be called external intelligence storage – the various disks/discs of the particular generations.
Which takes us full circle to the current situation with intellectual property laws, where the intangibles are given market value, policing protections and international treaty status. Mickey Mouse rules the world!
One of the problems with coding is that the code that’s the base is ever changing and so the stored knowledge and techniques often must be rediscovered and re-derived. The often sought “reusable code” always seems to be a myth. In the scheme of things (eons) it’s probably trivial. Still, I’m reminded of an op-ed from a recent LATimes that describes how our modern technology and the IP laws actually help to prevent the transfer of knowledge and culture from one generation to the next – the exact opposite of what IP laws were supposedly intended to do.
Intellectual property’s social value may trump copyright law.
By Dallas Weaver
February 20, 2008
thanks for share..
I think Orwell was actually referring to Chesterton’s quote: “I believe that our civilization is not only founded on Christianity, but is in its very material and texture Christian.” ie, Orwell is saying, our civilization isn’t founded on Christianity, it is founded on coal!