I dream of things that never were

Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 LBJ Presidential Library/Yoichi R. Okamoto

“Some people see things and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’

So where did an idea for a sophisticated, currency-based solution to a possible robbery during a potentially dangerous journey while on a religious quest come from? We are an evolved ape, but our other ape cousins do not yearn to travel the globe by horseback, sailing ship or motor. Other apes have never developed currencies or insurance schemes; other apes do not have religions over which they are prepared to fight foreign wars. To kill and be killed over a belief in what may or may not happen after our death and about whose God of their imagination is really in charge of everything .

Seventy thousand years ago, give or take, we acquired the problem-solving gene that defines modern Homo sapiens sapiens and which pre-empted our setting off, or being sent off, from our garden of Eden in Africa to migrate into the wilderness that was the rest of the world. Now upgraded from intelligent man to really intelligent man, archeologists refer to this as the ‘Cognitive Revolution”. The Hebrew Bible poetically refers to it as eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. And, in order to achieve dominion over all the beasts of the land and birds of the air, homo sapiens sapiens required strategic planning, co-operation, idea sharing and, most importantly, imagination. We required language, very sophisticated language.

My interest in the power of language was piqued by a Ted X lecture from a Vietnamese migrant in the USA, Phuc Tran, talking about the subjunctive tense. Probably like you, I could not recall back through my youthful education when the intrigue of the subjunctive mood was explained by my English teacher. But to recap, the subjunctive mood is used in English to explore imaginary or conditional situations.

“Imagine if it had not rained then we would have gone to the beach”. “Imagine if I were emperor then I would ……..”. “Imagine if I could just make this thing do that then the outcome would be…”

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. And as such the subjunctive mood is critical to the fundamental point of language for homo sapiens sapiens, that is to problem-solve. For the most creative problem solving occurs in the language of imagination.

Which is why Phuc Tran’s talk was so interesting. He was raised from a child in the USA and so was very familiar with the subjunctive mood in English. Phuc Tran has taught Latin, Greek, German, and Sanskrit at independent schools in New York and Maine and was an instructor at Brooklyn College’s Summer Latin Institute. In 2010, he served on a committee to revise the National Latin Praxis exam for ETS. Phuc currently teaches at Waynflete School in Portland. But his parents were raised in Vietnam and although his father was a lawyer and politician with the expected skills in the Vietnamese language, he had no comprehension of the subjunctive mood in that language.

That came to light in a very poignant way. When they were escaping during the fall of Saigon, the Tran family was about to board a bus to the airport when young Phuc became hysterical. In calming him down they missed the first bus and caught the second. That first bus was hit by artillery and all on board were killed. The second bus made it safely. So today Phuc ponders the ‘what ifs’. His father cannot comprehend this line of thought. His father does not do “what ifs”. His father says “Why on earth do you waste time talking about what did not happen?”

His father has a point. And in that point, we can also see that the subjunctive tense has two very distinctive moods. On the positive side it is the pathway to discovery, to problem solving, to inventiveness, to progress. On the dark side it can spiral down into fear, anxiety, depression. Sometimes through history some of our greatest geniuses were also among our most troubled minds. Soaring with the positive possibilities, then spiralling down into the negative fears of failure. The subjunctive mood is a wild horse that should not be ridden bareback; it needs reins, saddle and stirrups.

The right hemisphere of the human brain allows our creativity to explore the unknown and it is the left side that exercises the controls of calculation and logic. It is notable that the new wave of human distress, widespread social anxiety, has arisen at the same time that society has become increasingly reliant on technology to replace the left-brain functions of calculation and logic, which are the reins on the subjunctive mood of the right hemisphere. Only two generations ago emphasis in classrooms was on developing ‘mental arithmetic’, the ability of students to carry out calculations using just the left hemisphere of their brain. This practice stimulated the electrical activity of that left hemisphere. When pocket calculators first came onto the market in the 1970’s it was forbidden to use them in the classroom but as their use gradually infiltrated classrooms, followed by laptop computers, the activity of the left hemisphere of young brains has weakened as the right hemisphere’s imaginations has progressively dominated reality. Anxiety is the inevitable outcome of a dominant right hemisphere of the brain when outcomes that we only imagine begin to present themselves as reality that will inevitably happen. Perhaps mental calculations should be included in our daily gym programme to compensate for the role of calculation technology in the same way that stationary bikes and treadmills compensate physically for the motorised technology.

Phuc speculates that absence of the subjunctive mood may be the reason for the stoic resilience of the Vietnamese people. The question arises whether it is the culture that creates the language or, as my daughter who is a linguistics graduate believes, the other way round. That stoic people probably have no interest in the subjunctive mood whereas excitable, ambitious people actively seek to express themselves in the language of the imagination. I tend to agree with the latter and speculate that when the balance of a group of tribes swings more towards stoicism or imaginative ambition then that swing will have a huge impact on the evolution of our species. Stoicism limits co-operation to just the immediate knowns and facts and is a very tribal mentality. Trust no one outside the tribe. The ability to mutually adopt an imagined goal has the potential to unify hundreds, thousands or even millions of people who otherwise would never dream of co-operating with each other. From such imaginative ambition the concepts of nations and religions is born along with great armies to enforce their imaginative aspirations.

The Bible records that humans had been so successful in the development of a common language that God and his angels became alarmed that by the construction of the Tower of Babel, humans were challenging God himself. To summarise the Biblical story according to Genesis 11: ‘throughout the land mankind spoke one language and they moved eastwards to the land of Shimar (Sumer). And they said: “Come let us build a town and tower with its top reaching to heaven”.’ The Tower of Babel, said to be a baked brick structure intended to reach the heavens, was halted by God and his angels, because (Gen. 11: 6-9) “the Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. ‘ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”

But what was it about this Babel tower that so concerned the God of the Bible, Yahweh? The Tower in question was built in Shimar (Sumer) which was Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). Archaeology dates the arrival of humans into Mesopotamia between 3500 and 4500 BC. as they moved eastwards from the Mediterranean. This is from carbon dating the virgin soil beneath the earliest records of human occupation. The Bible records in Genesis 10:10, that a descendant of Noah’s son, Ham, a man named Nimrod was the first ‘king’ of this region and built his city called Nippur. We know from unearthed and translated Sumerian tablets that a six-seven story Ziggurat had been built in the city of Nippur where this priest-king lived.

The Sumerians are known for their skilled metalwork, stonework and statues. But more importantly they developed mathematics system based on 60, a twelve-month calendar based on moon cycles and a cuneiform alphabet which they used to keep records on clay tablets using a stylus. We also know that the oldest records of the science of astronomy are from Sumerian tablets dated back to the 3rd millennium bc and that they demonstrate that the Sumerians had a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system. Clearly an imaginative race.

In 1840 a French Consul in Mosul (now Iraq) who had been filling in his days riding in the desert and had came across mounds that contained pottery shards also discovered a huge number of clay tablets containing cuneiform writing. At first nothing more than a curiosity, a couple of years later he showed them to an Englishman he had befriended, Henry Layford, who was convinced this was a major archeological find. This then became a serious archeological site as a joint Anglo-French dig, albeit a clear demarcation line was drawn. But this dig uncovered the first Assyrian palace built by King Sargon 11 near Ninevah in 709BC. Tens of thousands of clay tablets were uncovered and removed for translation and preservation. The information on these tablets changed the whole timeframe understanding of human civilisation. They were written in 700BC but told stories that were 3,000 years old. There is one tablet, named VA/243, which shows all eight major planets in the solar system in correct relative size and the two dwarf planets of Pluto and Ceres. It also showed planets circuiting the sun (represented by the star of David). It was not until the 16th century AD that modern astronomers worked out that the earth travelling around the sun not the sun travelling around the earth as the Sumerians clearly knew thousands of years ago.

While the five planets out to Saturn can be seen with the naked eye and were known to ancient astronomers, Uranus was only discovered by William Herschel in 1781, Ceres by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801, Neptune was discovered by Johann Galle in 1846 and Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And yet these four planets are depicted accurately on this 700BC Sumerian tablet.

Babylon itself is first referenced in tablets as being a small city in Akkad around 2300 BC. Its status grew and around 1800 BC, a ruler named Hammurabi expanded the borders of the Akkadian/ Babylonian Empire, conquering Sumer. Babylon is recorded as replacing Nippur as the “Holy City of Mesopotamia”. The Babylonians studied the Sumerians cuneiform alphabet and then adapted it to their own Akkadian language.

The literal words of Genesis 11 are that the whole earth spoke one language. But this is the Bronze age. There were well-established civilisations in Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Sparta, Troy, China, Europe, Australia, North and South America and archaeology demonstrates that there were already many languages around the world. Being so concerned about this one baked-brick tower trying to reach the heavens also seems a bit pointless when  just along the road the Egyptians were building their pyramids, the great one almost 150 metres high, in Britain they built Stonehenge to study the heavens, in South America pyramids were being built and the remains of many ziggurats, all built between 3000 BC and 600 BC and used as observatories to study the heavens have been uncovered throughout Mesopotamia.

So perhaps it was not the tower itself that was of concern but rather what was inside the tower. Perhaps the Sumerian priest/astronomers’ knowledge of the heavens was developing far more rapidly than God and his angels deemed safe for humans to possess. Was their imagination starting to get out of control? So was this Babel story no more than an historical account of the Babylonians conquering the Sumerians, plundering the library of knowledge, cosmology and science stored in the Priest-King’s Ziggurat in Nippur and then replacing the Sumerian cuneiform language with the Akkadian cuneiform language so that the knowledge contained in the Sumerian tablets would become confused within a generation. Were the Babylonians a stoic race in contrast to the Akkadians being an imaginative race? The Babylonians certainly put great emphasis on their defence infrastructure surrounding their city with three rings of 40-foot-high impenetrable walls which might indicate stoicism.

This story could get all too academically speculative and just dismissed as another Biblical myth that just doesn’t quite stack up against archaeological evidence, except for the uncanny message that it is recorded in the Bible which tells us that the common language that the gods an angels set out to disrupt would enable men to reach the heavens. Why that is significant is that 4-5,000 years later humans once again are imagining that we will reach the heavens.

While the modern exploration of the heavens was initiated as part of the USA/USSR cold war, it is today very much a global mission. USA launched the space station Freedom in 1987 with support from the European Space Agency (Columbus Laboratory) and Japan (Japan Experimental Laboratory). In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble space telescope into low earth orbit. Russia then abandoned its plans for a successor to the Mir space station and in 1993 became a partner of the International Space Station (ISS). Without Russian support, the Western partners probably would have had to give up the Freedom Space Station. Today astronauts from around the world, including Japan, Canada, Europe in addition to Russia and the United States, travel to the ISS. Several languages are spoken on board. This communication challenge is assisted by the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, named Clarissa, which is programmed to understand both English and Russian. But future NASA astronauts will be required to learn Russian before they go into space. Because the Russian Federal Space Agency is facilitating the space flight to and from the ISS, it makes sense that the NASA wants astronauts to be able to correspond with their fellow space travellers. For over ten years all European astronaut activities are conducted at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. In fact, all the other astronauts on the ISS: Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians are also trained with European laboratory equipment. And European astronauts receive training in either Houston, USA, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan or Montreal, Canada to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. The arrangement between the international partners is that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it. China is also developing its heavenly ambitions but is doing so quite independently of the ISS partners.

To seriously explore the heavens, we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and we really do need a common language. The English language has been on a colonising mission for hundreds of years and while, at 370 million, it is only the third most common first language of the world, a long way behind Mandarin at 1.3 billion and well below Spanish at 470 million, English is by far the most common second-spoken language on earth at just under a billion people against Mandarin at 200 million. Mandarin matches English in its population size if not in its geopolitical breadth and this difference makes English the likely contender as the one language that will rule them all in our goal of reaching the heavens. But even if one language is not agreed, technology, driven by our imagination, will be able to instantly translate different languages to create a virtual common language to all men.

This is all developing at a time when the US government is finally admitting that alien craft, with vastly advanced technology, are entering our skies at will. So, will the Gods and angels intervene once more to deny our attempts to reach the heavens? Will they decide that our species is not yet mature enough to be allowed into the heavens? That we are just too volatile and dangerous. Are we just not mature enough as a species to handle the subjunctive mood?

But if there is any true evidence of the power of the imagination. It has occurred over the last 50 years more than the previous five thousand. I saw on some Facebook page a bit of a self-indulgent reminiscence by one of my generation recalling the good old days when we had face-to-face friends not face-book friends; when we built go carts to race downhill against our mates rather than played X Box games against avatars. When someone else took photos of us if the occasion was significant and we kept those photo prints in a private album. There is nothing new in the older generation despairing for the younger generation, that has been going on since at least the time of Socrates, but the difference today is not so much attitudinal as it is technological. Today’s technology has had an influence on the behaviour of youth that Socrates could never imagine in his wildest philosophies.

The Facebook post put the timing of this quantum shift in normality at the mid 1980’s. Those of us born before that time had real lives, but the post 80’s generation are now living a fake online life and they seem to be really struggling, emotionally, to adapt their natural human psyche to this self-created virtual world.

Computers in primitive form had been around well before the 1980’s but they were just big, cumbersome calculating machines. I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn to speak to one of these great machines when I studied (although that is probably overstating the effort I put in) accounting at university in the early 1970’s. The computer then needed its own room, actually it was the size of a small room itself. It spake strange tongues of Portran and Fortran. It told me, numerically speaking, that it was in control of me, not the other way around. If what I put in did not compute, it spat it back out. Start again human. IBM was the driving force of the computer world and seemed focused on keeping it within the corporate and political world, well above the lives of ordinary folk.

But it was in the late 1970’s that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started a business to bring these giant computing machines down to size. They wanted computers to be fun for all. They named the company Apple. In his biography Steve Jobs said that it was just a serendipitous choice; that he was on a fruitarian diet at the time and had just returned from an apple farm and thought the fresh, fun name suited his company’s vibe. If so, the coincidence is uncanny. The apple has an established historical connection with a quantum leap in mankind’s knowledge of universal law; Isaac Newton said he had his ‘eureka’ moment about gravity when he watched an apple fall from a tree.

The apple also has a prehistorical connection with man’s quest for knowledge and even immortality. In Norse mythology the goddess Idun was the keeper of the apples of the tree of knowledge and life and is known as the goddess of eternal youth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, ruled the Garden of the Hesperides (nymphs) where there was an orchard in which trees bearing golden apples had the power to heal and renew. And the bible relates that Lucifer gave Eve the fruit, usually depicted as an apple, from the tree of knowledge

And by the mid-later 20th century the two Steve’s have brought the Apple computer into our homes. Well they did not immediately arrive into our homes; in the 1970’s and 80’s they were still a geeky, impractical and expensive machine that most homes could happily live without. But while Wozniak was the brains behind the machine itself, he would never have taken it beyond the techno geek market and as such would not have survived commercially. His Apple would have withered on the branch. Jobs was most certainly the man (the Lucifer, the enlightened one) responsible for giving the Apple of knowledge to mankind. And in a very strategic move, he first took it into the classroom, actually donating the original Apple 1 to some schools just to whet the appetite. He was less interested in wasting the fruits of the Apple on the elders of humankind, he wanted to give it to the children. In 1978 he won a contract to supply 500 Apple II computers to schools in Minnesota. In 1983 he sold a computer package (including floppy disc) to over 9,000 schools in California at a cost per package then for what you would now get a decent I-Mac. The Macintosh (an actual variety of apple) was launched in 1984 and the flood gates started to open.

One generation after the Apple from the tree of knowledge was fed to our children, we could no longer imagine education without computers. We could not imagine homes without computers, or people without smartphones. My little granddaughter was just two years old when her innate demand for language, knowledge and technology led us to the conclusion that we had no option but to provide her own personal connection into the universal consciousness. Her very own Apple i-pad. She took to it like a duck to water. Her knowledge, understanding and communication skills have taken quantum leaps; she swipes through the icons as though she invented them. 

So once again an apple from the tree of knowledge is the means by which knowledge and imagination is being spread throughout humanity.  It is the means by which we have built our rocket propelled towers with which to explore the heavens. In history Babel was the place where many voices come to speak together. Could the modern-day Babel be the headquarters of Google, Apple, NASA and Spacex? Or is 21st century Babel located in the cloud and refers to the inanity of Twitter? The fake lives of Instagram? The pretend friends of Facebook? Interestingly while the Bible’s Genesis tells us that is was man’s corruption and evil that cause the great flood, the pre-dated original Sumerian clay texts said it was the noise and unending chatter of humans that caused the Gods to bring the great flood.

The changes in our lifestyle are, in reality, just as dramatic as noted in the Facebook post that began this blog. The irony being that he used Facebook to express his concerns; he did not call around to voice his concerns to me in person over a cup of coffee.

If Steve Jobs was the 21st century Lucifer then let us hope that humanity is ready for such knowledge this time around. Embracing the computer technology pioneered by Jobs in order to elevate humanity to new levels is Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX who has now announced that the final goal of “Neuralink”, his brain-machine interface development, is to allow humans to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Neuralink aims to implant wireless brain-computer interfaces in the most complex human organ to help cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia and spinal cord injuries and ultimately fuse humankind with artificial intelligence.

The reaction of God, having discovered that Adam had eaten the apple from the tree of knowledge, was to expel man from Eden to forage like the beasts in the wild lest they then seek to eat from the tree of life and live forever. Then later mankind’s language was confused lest they build their tower to reach the heavens. Interfacing human consciousness with artificial intelligence as a means of living forever and exploring distant galaxies in the heavens is actually now a very real prospect within the next decade. Will the Gods once more intervene?

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