Sunday, 19 February 2017

The paper age

History is probably too nuanced and irreducibly complex to be chunked into high concept sound bites but, what the heck, here's a simple idea I took away from a radio programme I just heard. Islam's "golden age" was made of paper.

The golden age is conventionally defined as the period from 8th century to the 13th century, when medicine, mathematics, science, engineering and architecture flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate. Like the western Renaissance, the golden age is supposed to have been accelerated by the discovery, or rediscovery, of knowledge from other times and cultures. A translation movement, centred on Baghdad, was responsible for making the intellectual heritage of Eurasia, from Greek philosophy to Indian mathematics available in Arabic.

But why was it a golden age? Well, it's called the Islamic golden age, so maybe it had something to do with Islam. And you could argue that some aspects were specifically Islamic - for example the mathematics and astronomy involved in determining when Ramadan starts and finishes, or the geometry behind the tiling patterns in non-representational Islamic decorative art. But that doesn't explain the embrace, diffusion and development of ideas from non-Islamic cultures (maybe the dominant strain of Islam was particularly ecumenical and tolerant during the golden age, but if that's an explanation, we then need another explanation for the other times when the most influential branches of Islam haven't been open-minded and tolerant).

Maybe it was a specifically Abbasid golden age - stable government over a huge area, leading to trade and the diffusion of ideas. But this explanation starts to look a bit shaky under scrutiny, too. There was plenty of unrest and division - for much of the golden age the Abbasids ruled their caliphate in name only, with actual power residing in the hands of local rulers in Fez, Egypt, Persia and the Seljuq-controlled areas of Turkey and central Asia, while Abbasid control never extended to the Iberian peninsula, which remained under the control of the previous Umayyad dynasty until fracturing into a patchwork of local emirates.

I'm more convinced by the notion that that paper, not gold, was the era-defining material. According to Arab sources, the Abbasid caliphate acquired the secret of paper-making from Chinese prisoners, captured at the Battle of Talas in 751, although this account is undermined by archaeological evidence of paper being manufactured in Samarkand long before the battle. But however the diffusion happened, there's no doubt that it happened and that, when it did, it became a big deal. A really big deal:
By the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), enough paper was available in Baghdad for bureaucrats to use it for record-keeping instead of papyrus and parchment...

...Since it absorbed ink, writing could not easily be erased from it, as it could from papyrus and parchment. Documents written on paper were therefore more secure from forgery.

Papermaking and stationery were soon significant businesses in Baghdad. Ahmad ibn Abi Tahir (819-893), the teacher, writer, and paper dealer, was established at the Suq al-Warraqin (the Stationers' Market), a street which was lined with more than 100 paper- and booksellers' shops. Stationers in Abbasid Baghdad must have functioned somewhat like private research libraries, for the ninth-century polymath al-Jahiz is said to have rented stationers' shops by the day in order to read the books they kept in stock. Another famous stationer was Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 995), known also as Ibn Abi Ya'qub al-Nadim al-Warraq ("the Stationer"). He used his extensive professional knowledge to compile the Fihrist, an encyclopaedia which remains a mine of information about medieval books and writing.

The new availability of paper in the ninth century spurred an extraordinary burst of literary creativity in virtually all subjects, from theology to the natural sciences and belles-lettres...

... New types of literature, such as cookbooks and the tales we know as The Thousand and One Nights, were copied on paper for sale to interested readers...

 ...Scholars and copyists translated Greek texts, written on parchment and papyrus, into Arabic, transcribing them onto sheets of paper which were then bound into books. The new availability of paper also encouraged new approaches to old subjects. At the same time that paper was being disseminated across the Islamic lands, the Hindu system of reckoning with decimal place-value numerals—what we call "Arabic numerals"—was spreading westward from India. Before the Hindu system was introduced, people in the Islamic lands, as elsewhere, did their calculations mentally and recorded intermediate results either on a dust-board—which could be repeatedly erased as they performed successive additions or subtractions—or by the position of their fingers ("finger-reckoning")...

...The Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusraw, who visited Cairo between 1035 and 1042, mentions that in the bazaars of Fustat (Old Cairo), the greengrocers, grocers and mercers provided free containers to hold or wrap the glassware, ceramics, and bundles of paper they sold. This suggests that paper had become relatively cheap, although it still wasn't so cheap that it was easily discarded. Used paper was saved so that the fiber could be recycled into new paper...

...paper had become an indispensable medium of communication in this commercial society, where bills of exchange, orders of payment, and similar documents, most of them written on paper, were regularly sent back and forth between trading communities located as far apart as Spain and India.
Jonathan M Bloom

In short, the Islamic golden age just happened to be the age when the Islamic world adopted the cutting edge information technology of its day. And the period when Renaissance/early modern Europe began to match, then outdo, the Islamic world's store of cultural capital, was coincidentally the time when the former adopted the next great leap in information technology, printing,* which the Islamic world was slow to take up:
According to Suraiya Faroqhi, lack of interest and religious reasons were among the reasons for the slow adoption of the printing press outside Europe: Thus, the printing of Arabic, after encountering strong opposition by Muslim legal scholars and the manuscript scribes, remained prohibited in the Ottoman empire between 1483 and 1729, initially even on penalty of death, while some movable Arabic type printing was done by Pope Julius II (1503−1512) for distribution among Middle Eastern Christians, and the oldest Qur’an printed with movable type was produced in Venice in 1537/1538 for the Ottoman market.
And now we seem to be at the end of the paper age. When e-readers with e-ink displays arrived, I thought that the transition might be fairly seamless. E-ink is useless for delivering all-singing, all-dancing digital content with video and awesome graphics, but it does provide a point of continuity with paper - like paper it's easy on the eye and less eye-strain inducing than reading long articles or books on a flickering screen. But e-ink e-readers seem, so far, to have been a bit of a flop, compared with the take up of other digital devices. We still have plenty of books being printed, but it does make me wonder whether generations brought up on short form, interactive clickbaity content are losing the habit of reading long pieces of text and don't even see the advantage of a format that allows you to reread a whole book comfortably, because the habit of reading whole books is slowly, but surely dying out.

Maybe, fifty or a hundred years from now, the skill of sitting down with a book-length piece of text and absorbing a long and complicated argument or story will be lost. And, because you can effortlessly get any piece of information you can imagine from the whatever the Internet has become, nobody will miss that skill, any more than people in today's literate society miss the skills of the bards who memorised whole epic poems and stored culture in their own heads. Then, the paper age will be over at last. Maybe.

*Which, itself, depended on Europe adopting paper technology from the Islamic world.