iPods and the Inquisition

An enduring question: what happened to Islamic science and philosophy? In early and mid medieval times, it was the best on the planet: any system of knowledge that encompasses algorithms, Algol and alembics gets my vote.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

An enduring question: what happened to Islamic science and philosophy? In early and mid medieval times, it was the best on the planet: any system of knowledge that encompasses algorithms, Algol and alembics gets my vote. But as the West clicked into overdrive, the Islamic traditions calcified and reversed; by the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman empire had gone rotten and collapsed under the pressure of expansionist Europeans and internal reformists. (Final outcome: to be decided.)

One of the more compelling arguments for this sea change is differing attitudes to the moveable type printing press. Although the technology certainly had its problems in the West – publishers still get burned these days through bad decisions, but not quite as literally as before – it became one of the major tools of reformation, gradually unhooking the fingers of church and state from the throat of those with other ideas. It was the primary tool of the Enlightenment.

Over in the Arabic-speaking world, the story was different. The printing press turned up, but failed to make much of an impact: as a result, documents of all kinds remained rare, expensive and tightly controlled. (It's probably wrong to say, as some have, that there was thus no reformation in Islam; Islam is, at least theoretically, non-hierarchical and eschews the sort of church structure that characterises Roman Catholicism. But that really is another story). From my reading, I thought that this rejection was due to a combination of suspicion at what might happen and a much better piece of good old-fashioned guild-style market control by the existing scribes than the Europeans managed.

Not so, says a (beautifully illustrated) article in Saudi Aramco World. The piece argues that the real reason was calligraphy: written Arabic, although composed from 28 basic letters much as is Latin script, is always joined up – with each letter having four ways to join to its neighbour, and each two-letter combination having its own unique shape. Moreover, the choice of which option to take was dictated by ineffable rules of beauty known only to the calligrapher, who choreographed his (oh yes, definitely his) words like so many dancers.

The mathematics of trying to combine all this with moveable type simply defeated the early printers, says the magazine, and the results were so clumsy and crude that the technology was rejected – quite rightly – as unsuitable to the task.

Now, it's true that early European printers managed to get their style together very early on, certainly comparable with hand-written script: did this help acceptance? Hard to argue that it didn't: the Gutenberg Bible went to great lengths to replicate the look of existing manuscripts. But as soon as the press got out into mass production, the quality went through the floor. Take a look at 16h and 17th century pamphlets, and you'll see all the horrors that DTP visited upon us in the 1980s. Nobody seemed to mind much.

But then, it's also true that there are cultural aspects of Arabic that just don't exist for European languages: it could well be that reading badly set Arabic is far more like having your eyeballs sandpapered than the effects of anything you could torture out of Ventura Publisher. And while it's certainly more agreeable to blame cultural lacunae on untransgressable beauty instead of reactionary conservatism, there's no doubt that Arabic is far more complex to set than the latinates.

Let's stay in the 1980s, and the arrival of another new world-changing technology: the microprocessor. It deals in the lingua franca of mathematics, of data represented as 1 and 0. If any rising tide should float all cultural boats, this was it: but apparently not. According to a pseudonymous post by “GT” on their Gatunka blog, the Japanese did remarkably badly from the early days of 8-bit microprocessors. (GT says they are a technical translator working in Japan: certainly seems to know their onions). While the West was busy enjoying the first wave of cheap word processors and general-use computing, the intricacies of entering and displaying Japanese ideograms were simply beyond what that technology could do. You could build a games console, where the few bits of Japanese you needed were represented as bitmaps alongside the rest of the game's graphics, but for text editing on a computer? Forget it. By the time cheap computer technology was up to the job – around 2000 – the West had had general purpose computers at home for long enough for them to have evolved into the central hub for an entire economy. The iPod makes no sense without a home PC: thus, argues GT, the Japanese could not have invented it. That's why Sony got stuck at the Walkman.

Obviously, the social, political and economic implications of being a bit behind with your iPods are substantially different to thoseof abandoning the printing press and the Enlightenment. But both stories illustrate how sensitive technology is to the culture in which it arrives – and how hard it is to avoid naïve assumptions about the interactions between the two (you listening, Negroponte?).

It's particularly important to bear these things in mind if you're an English-speaking jourmalist, finding oneself gifted with the most generally applicable language and (no coincidence) the most advanced technology on the planet. What else am I missing?

(Oh, and is Stephen Fry really a reincarnation of Mullah Nasreddin? I think it just might be true...)

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