We should be more surprised

OpenAI’s DALL·E ‘vision’ of a surprised medieval monk (created Nov 30, 2022)

Nay, stunned and shocked. We should allow ourselves to be taken aback by history.

By how quickly the technology of the moveable-type printing press was adopted across Europe. In less than 10 years since the first book ever printed in the West, printing workshops were being established all across the Holy Roman Empire and beyond its borders. In 50 years, it managed to take over a technology which had reigned supreme for thousands of years. Early adoption and automation at scale right there!

By how much freedom of opinion and how little censorship was during the medieval period. The so-called age of faith is often equated with superstition, box-thinking and herd mentality. But there was far more innovation, speculation and intellectual experimentation in the Middle Ages than we might think. To the extent that a truly distinctive culture could emerge. And in a world of fragmented and competing jurisdictions, there was little scope for authoritarianism and thought police. That came later, with the rise of nations and ideologies.

By how much colour there was in the pre-modern world. I like to think that our modern urban fascination with graffiti and street art is due to an unacknowledged sense of loss of the colours of the medieval world.

Finally, by how fragile the world has always been, but especially in the pre-modern period; and how little it took for the memory of the past to vanish in the fires of precarity, violence and neglect. We have learned what it means to be citizens of the world we built, but we need to spend more time learning to be the curators of our shared tangible and intangible inheritance. And not to act exactly like those whose behaviour we resent.

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