Thursday, November 22, 2012

Welcome to the Republic of Letters

"There's nothing new under the sun." Oh yeah? What on Earth has ever come before that could possibly be like the internet? The Republic of Letters, that's what.

In my spare time I like to read books about science, history, technology, astronomy - in fact, one of the ways I measure my success in life is by the amount of time I free up to read about how the world works, and - just as important - how we came to know how the world works. The greatest story ever told. And reading these books, there are recurring dramatis personae, and recurring themes.

There's no getting away from Newton, for instance, or Richard Feynman, or Alan Turing, to pick just three. Turing comes up in relation to the history of cryptography, which in turn overlaps with the history of the computer. If computers are your bag you'll frequently encounter Charles Babbage, who gets a good run in James Gleick's "The Information", along with Ada Lovelace. He's a node, a narrative gravity well that a lot of paths pass through when talking about the history of modern technology: he also has a minor, passing role in "The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes, for instance, as an iconoclastic intriguer against the Royal Society.

Flickr photo
FlickrAshton Kutcher .', by Un poco locA !. following in the footsteps of giants of science .

So if you're reading similar sorts of books about the great scientists of the last couple of hundred years like Darwin, Davy, Herschel, Einstein, etc. it's hardly surprising that the same figures crop up again and again. But you wouldn't normally expect there to be too much in any treatment of their lives that has much bearing on how we use computers today, how we network, how we use social media, how we blog, tweet and update our status. Of course not. Why would there be? Back in the day they had to write letters and telegrams to each other and wait days and weeks for a reply. What's that got to do with mother social media, you say?

But reading Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature" recently, I came across another node, a historical network that I never knew had a name. And what a name!
"The technologies of the day - the sailing ship, the printed word, and the postal service - had already made information and people portable. A global campus, a public sphere, or as it was called in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Republic of Letters."
We all know that in the old days people wrote each other letters. A lot of letters. But did you know that in the 17th and 18th centuries among scientists and philosophers, the network of correspondence was so complex and extensive that it was effectively what we'd nowadays call a blogosphere, a social network? I began to notice it everywhere. I recently read (and watched on TV) Niall Ferguson's "Civilization":
"The printing press and increasingly reliable postal services combined to create an extraordinary network, small by modern standards, but more powerful than anything previously achieved by a community of scholars."
By the way, my wife has a crush on Niall Ferguson, which has to be embarrassing for her if you know her and you're reading this. Please mention it. Back to Steve (I hope I can call him that) Pinker:
"Any 21st-century reader who dips into intellectual history can't help but be impressed by the blogosphere of the 18th. No sooner did a book appear than it would sell out, get reprinted, get translated into half a dozen languages, and spawn a flurry of commentary in pamphlets , correspondence, and additional books. Thinkers like Locke and Newton exchanged tens of thousands of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than eighteen thousand...unfolded on a scale that by today's standard was glacial - weeks, sometimes even months - but it was rapid enough that ideas could be broached, criticized, amalgamated, refined, and brought to the attention of people in power."
In "Too Big to Know" ("but not too big to blog about") by David Weinberger, we're reminded that "knowledge has always been social", although "it really helped to be a leisured white man."
"In the 18th century, the great Western thinkers constituted what they called a "Republic of Letters", in which they shared their ideas in correspondence, arguing back and forth at the speed of ponies and sailing ships."
You'd have to say that at that pace, trolling can't have been too much of a problem. Only the most dedicated flamer would dash off a baiting letter or two only to spend a couple of weeks waiting by the postbox to read some outraged responses.

But the Daddy, the Ashton Kutcher (who, you will remember, was the first to reach 1,000,000 followers on Twitter) of the Republic of Letters, has to be Charles Darwin. According to the Darwin Correspondence Project website, "Darwin exchanged letters with nearly 2000 people during his lifetime. These range from well known naturalists, thinkers, and public figures, to men and women who would be unknown today were it not for the letters they exchanged with Darwin." On the front page of the site, they have a 'this day in Darwin's postbox'! To use a modern metaphor, they give you access to the Darwin firehose.

Because of the mysterious illness that set in after his Beagle voyage and plagued him for the rest of his life, Darwin more or less exiled himself to Down House, Kent, and became a prominent citizen in the Republic. In fact, you can trace his citizenship in the Republic of Letters back to his round-the-world Beagle voyage, during which he amassed evidence for his theory of natural selection and established a network of scientific and establishment correspondents.

It would be easy, and fun I suppose, to make a trite and unfair comparison between a typical twitter conversation, and some beautifully-crafted exchange between, for example, Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, or any two Victorian gentlemen amateur natural philosophers (or "scientists" as they later became known as). Hold them both up to the light and laugh at the quality of what passes for contemporary correspondence compared to the literary standard of luminaries of bygone days. But the quality, whatever you judge it to be, is irrelevant. Not all twitter activity is low quality any more than everyone who wrote to each other using pen and paper was Isaac Newton. Although, in fairness, one thing the old times had going for them was that you didn't get Republic of Letters bots writing badly-phrased epistles to random addresses wanting to share photographs with the bemused recipients.

I find it inspiring to think that, far from being a brand new phenomenon, the urge to join in correspondence with a network of peers is part of an honourable, valued tradition, following in the footsteps of giants like William Herschel, Robert Hooke, Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and of course Charles Darwin.