Saturday, May 1, 2010

Where is the modern day Rosetta Stone ?

But for the chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we may have never learnt about the wonders of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The tombs and the monuments had, of course, been known for a long time. But nobody could understand the hieroglyphics, for the language had died long long ago. So we knew very little about this wonderful civilisation, until by sheer accident , a stone was discovered in Rosetta on which was written a fairly unimportant decree from Ptolemy V. The information in it was utterly irrelevent, but the beauty of the finding was that the writing was both in ancient Egyptian and in Greek, a language well known now. Voila – With a small primer, and the heroic efforts of Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion, the hieroglyphic script was deciphered. We know so much about the ancient Egyptian civilization because of this chance discovery. Contrast this with the ancient Indian civilization, where, despite the findings at Mohenjodaro and Harappa, we know very little because we cannot decipher the language. And in any case, they left very little written material behind.

This historical musing was prompted by the news that Sony was going to stop the manufacture of 3.5" floppy disks. Remember them ?? Some readers of this blog such as Deepa and Vishal are too young to remember , but there are a few, who I won’t embarrass, who have known of them! They were the staple portable medium for many years – a few might even remember the 5" and then the 8" floppies that preceded them. Now they are all consigned to the dustbin of history.

Most of human knowledge today is stored electronic. But there is a sense of impermanence to electronic media – if you switch off the power; poof they are gone. And the standards are changing all the time. Data files from even 10 years ago are probably unreadable. Mediums of storage are dying all the time. Can you read a Lotus 123 file today ?? What if somebody produced a Winchester disk drive of old – you’d probably look at it as if a mummy has come back to life.

The Egyptians carved on stone. Their language changed very little for 3000 years. So when they left their monuments, they were monuments in time. Even so it was gravely under risk of not being understood until the accident at Rosetta unraveled the glories. But what will happen to modern man. He is changing standards every 10 years and stores his history in mediums that will hardly last 20 years; leave alone 100 or 1000. So are all our glories meant to be insignificant footnotes in history ??

Despite all our sense of self importance, we are , but a speck, in the ocean of time. The worst fate that can befall us is one of utter irrelevance. Nobody even knows in the future that we existed, that we achieved, for our times, great things. That we were capable of art, of philosophy, that we made wonderful scientific discoveries, that we adapted like crazy at speeds unheard of, that we were capable of high emotion and noble deed, that we were glorious. That we sometimes descended into ignoble act, but we always rose with courage and greatness. I would like to say, albeit in a small voice, that I was there. But somebody in the distant mists of time needs to be able to see us, hear us, read us.

We need to leave our footprints, not on the sand in the beach, but cast in concrete. And we need a modern day Rosetta Stone.