I come from a country where in the last century a number of our most famous writers have left these shores for a life of enforced exile. You’re not going to compare yourself to Beckett or Joyce now (are you?) I hear you ask in disbelief. Why no, not at all. But I have been trying to construct an analogy for what I feel must be done to reclaim ourselves in these empty digital times.
I will be leaving the world of social media and instant messaging. Not that anyone will care. I have few followers on any given platform, nobody hangs on to my every given word. And that’s okay with me.
The Cambrian Explosion as you’ll remember refers to an epoch recorded in the fossil record which is known as, in the words of noted archaeologist Bill Bryson, “[…] the moment when complex life burst forth in dazzling profusion — the famous Cambrian explosion”. We’re talking 500-million-plus years ago.
I want to suggest that something similar happened in the Axial Age roughly 2,500 ago, but with thought. According to Karl Jaspers in his work Origin and Goal of History something profound or pivotal happened between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE in China, India, and Greece. World-spanning religions were formed. Itinerant scholars† plied their trade. According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation what is now called The Golden Rule was formulated simultaneously and what seems like independently. Axiomatic math was laid out by a dude called Euclid. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years‡ argues that it is the simultaneous and independent invention of coinage that spurred this social complexity. But to have coinage one must have not just the technology but the idea of coinage. Witness bitcoin where tech capability pre-dated invention by 30 years or so. And for an idea like coinage one needs abstraction. And we know what that age also gave us, the birth of philosophy, and if there is one thing a philosopher gets off on it’s abstraction.