Innovation Stifled at the Worst Time

It has been said that if the Library of Alexandria had not been burned to the ground, than Christopher Columbus would have been travelling to the moon instead. While the world will never know whether or not that is true, at least not until we have the appropriate virtual reality technology, it is still a sobering thought. The simultaneous vulnerability and power of something like the Library of Alexandria is captivating to behold. It doesn’t seem right that something as simple as the destruction of a library could possibly derail human progress on that level, but it did happen, and something like that is still capable of happening again.

Many people today would protest that there will never be another Alexandria, and that huge swaths of human knowledge could never possibly be destroyed like that again. They will point out that a huge portion of our knowledge and data is now backed up electronically. There are millions of copies of most books in circulation now, and they are also backed up electronically, so our literature and knowledge will never be lost. These people should at least acknowledge the risks of moving everything into the digital sphere, since these sorts of power grids are not immune to massive failures. In the event of a tremendous and extended worldwide loss of power, a good portion of our data and information could still be lost or damaged.

The fact that human knowledge is now distributed all across the world and it is widely available does make it that much less likely that we will lose everything the way we did when the Library of Alexandria was burned. These were the only extant copies of those books, and the knowledge that they contained was functionally lost to humanity until it was rediscovered at a much later date. It is true that it would take a much more significant disaster in order to cause something similar for the people of today, given all of the safeguards that we have. However, the likelihood of a disaster like this has also increased, so it is important for people not to get too complacent.

Perhaps one of the main ways in which people can prevent this sort of horror from happening is to maintain the right cultural attitudes. Our culture needs to be the sort of culture that encourages innovation, that builds and maintains science parks, and that supports technological research. The Burning of the Library of Alexandria was a politically motivated decision. It was not some sort of natural disaster that managed to accidentally claim so much of human knowledge. By keeping those sorts of horrifying ideas away, people will be able to contribute a lot to the strength of science and technological innovation in the modern world.