This article is a case on why the technology of typesetting was one of the most important contributors to the development of humanity, namely, Europe in comparison to major parts of Asia, particularly India. It would have helped in the medieval ages, I think, if Indians had adopted an easily typeset script like that of English as opposed to the complex Devanagari (and the like).
As outlined in Guns, Germs and Steel, many factors make a region suitable for human physical and (as a natural result) intellectual prosperity. Although the book mainly focuses on differences in Eurasia and the Americas, the ideas can be extrapolated to the context of any specific region. India too, had the right mix of geography (plains, mountains and seas), climate (tropical to temperate), food surplus (agriculture), diseases (refine genetic pool), etc. Yet, India is still a developing country. Apart from the factors that directly help survival, India didn’t see much knowledge proliferation before modern era although the conditions were set right for it, as in the case of many countries in Europe. I think, the (small) hurdle of ineffective communication was possibly the key to the restricted progress in India.
Devanāgarī is one of the most widely used scripture representing Indian languages. It has a structure that emphasizes on sounds formed by consonant-vowel pairs, categorized as alphasyllabary. Each consonant-vowel pair is a separate unit while writing, and so can represent several symbols when considered individually. It is important to consider the number of symbols for replication of texts (knowledge). At least 15 vowels and 34 consonants are necessary in Devanagari to represent the majority of words and representations. That is, 15 X 34 + 15 = 525 symbols! Compare that to English alphabet which has only 26 characters – less by a factor of almost 20. Although it is a minor task for scribes to remember so many symbols as it follows similar patterns, it is an enormous task to typeset them – similar patterns cannot be used to optimize typesetting (in its primitive form). This difficulty is maintained in almost all other scripts of India as they are either a derivative of/to Devanagari or have structures very similar to it. I call this the curse of symbols. This curse is evident in many Central and East Asian scripts too. So with ineffective means of replication of knowledge, collaboration becomes lower and life of the knowledge dwindles. Thus, the curse of symbols should have surely played a huge role in hindering intellectual development in India.
The difficulty in knowledge proliferation due to ineffective communication, I think, has more effects than is immediately apparent. The existence of so many different languages and scripts in India should have come about partly due to this communication deficiency. The mutation of script is higher without proper texts, which slowly leads to derived scripts or new scripts altogether. Simultaneously, the lack of enough knowledge exchange makes people create their own terms for the same things and they finally end up creating new languages. This slow cycle and development of new languages isn’t bad entirely (in fact diversity is good), but it hinders development, social interaction and collaboration in bigger scales and shorter times (as we do today with a common language of English mostly). If the diversity in communication cannot cope up with the human population, it acts as a feedback loop to create more pockets of people having less in common with each other. The only way to stabilize this is to introduce knowledge proliferation in an easy way. European languages succeeded in that very well. Gutenberg effectively changed the world by making knowledge sharing much cheaper and effective.
Today, technology has accelerated the efficacy of knowledge sharing and in turn is making the development of itself faster. The curse of symbols that was faced by our old ancestors is a puny thing to the technology of 21st century; we’ve found effective ways to represent the symbols of all the scripts of the world with Unicode (Ex: Devanagari). In addition, we’ve also found the balance between maintaining commonality and diversity with English. English has grown to be a huge mixed bag by adopting more words every year (about 1000 additions per year in the last decade), hitting the nail on the flexibility head. This versatility is essential from the technical to the colloquial. We collaborate and grow in ever increasing rates today. I wonder what lies ahead… Isn’t the world awesome?
- The mentions of India above is not restricted to the current geographical borders. I’m broadly speaking about the region in general.
- The upside of alphasyllabary in Indian scripts is information density. In writing, more information can be conveyed in lesser number of characters compared to English – on an average at least twice the information (I suppose). So you won’t feel so limited with Twitter’s 140 characters if you and your peers know an Indian (or almost any Asian) script.
- It is said that some of the Vedic systems, such as the caste system played a big role in killing progress in India. I agree partially because knowledge restriction was really underlying the whole thing. Knowledge is freedom. Knowledge is growth.
- I thought of referring to some puerile scientists who believe in a lost treasure of knowledge in India – like that of flying machines, or elixir of life. They are not worthy of the main article. I don’t blame them entirely. I wouldn’t be too surprised if several generations down the line, a small group of people will have a consensus about Harry Potter possessing a real thrust-less flying technology. That’s the curse of communication gap, which can only be caused by their own ignorance.