Friday, July 01, 2005

12: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 12

Few of us give much thought now to the Internet. It came upon us in the 1990s with the advent of a series of advances in software and hardware technology that brought the price of a home computer, or PC, down to an affordable level. For most of us, just having a PC was truly remarkable, but there was this thing called the Internet that came with it. It allowed us to send email to our family and friends, and to join discussion groups from all over the world, and make new friends (and sometimes new family members) with which we exchanged emails. But mostly, we could buy things “online”, as it is called. Not many of us gave more than a passing “Isn’t that amazing!”, or even a simple “It’s wonderful!” to the Internet.

In fact, it is a technological marvel, perhaps on the scale of the great pyramids of Egypt, or the magnetic compass, or the steam engine, or the printing press with moveable type, or the gasoline engine, perhaps even the splitting of the atom.

An older husband washed some clothes for his wife and forgot to check pockets. When the wife could not locate her cell phone, the washer was checked. There it was. At least the suds had not reached it, but the water had. After drying it out, it was determined the battery was dead, shorted out by the water. The rest of the phone still worked with the battery from the husband’s matching phone. A search was made on the Internet, a battery was found at a reasonable price, and it was ordered late on a Sunday night. On Monday morning, the husband received an email informing him the battery had been shipped from Hong Kong that morning. On Tuesday morning the battery was delivered to his back door in the U.S. The husband had engaged in international trade on a singular level. In terms of the transaction, it rivals the speed with which our cave dwellers traded apples and boar meat for berries and fish with the people from the next cave. It was that simple. And nearly that fast.

After coming nearly full circle about trade, there are some dots left to connect. Obviously, technology drove trade, and trade drove technology. As advances were required, technology provided them. As trade was required to pay for those advances, it would then expand to require even more advances, and so on, in an endless cyclical process, from the caveman who discovered his meat tasted better cooked, to the delivery of a cell phone battery from half-way around the world in 36 hours. Technology advances in its own evolutionary process, in that most technological advances occur when there is a human need for an advance. On occasion, however, a new advance will occur before that need arises, and civilization will be advanced.

Trade brought spice and silk to the world. Spice, according to author Jack Turner in his wonderful book Spice: The History of a Temptation, was used initially as a food preservative and to enhance its flavor. By the time of King Solomon it had become an aphrodisiac, as related in the Songs of Solomon, which contains the comparison of a lover to spices. Imagine an ancient kingly house, the air perfumed with several pleasing scents, the exquisite food flavored with different spices, and the King and his consort clothed in luxurious silken robes. Even the wine has cinnamon in it. All this to please the senses, to relax a person and make them feel special, to enhance the sensual delights of love. Spice was much more than a commodity. And by recognizing this, we can begin to appreciate its value. Yes the food was bad, particularly in Europe where sanitary practices were of little importance, where, when a king’s palace or castle got filled with trash and garbage, he would move out to another castle or palace (this is called a “progress”!). But the food was not that bad that spice would be a requirement to rescue it. And spice was not for the serfs and peasants. Spice was for those who could afford it. Hence, the great national efforts of the past millennium to obtain spice in greater quantities. That effort, then, spawned the maritime exploration of the world, and colonization, and exploitation of new and not so new continents, and their native peoples.

When economies caught up, the advances would reach farther and farther down the ladder to people with lower incomes. With every advance in technology, spice, and the technological advances became less expensive and closer to the grasp of the individual -- so much so that we take for granted now that cinnamon comes from a grocery store, and not from some Indonesian Island. Where this fails to be the case is in the worlds that were exploited, or the worlds that were disrupted in their progress. Most of these tend to be the tropical and subtropical areas of Asia, India, Africa, Central and South America. But even they are catching up. Note the effort to find survivors of the great tsunami of late last December in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The Internet was used to find and match missing family members separated by that catastrophe. Satellites study the geography, geology and climate of sections of the earth where people are starving, so that ways that would arrest and reverse the process of famine can be found.

But most importantly, just like ideas of philosophy and religion were shared along the Silk Road and the Spice Road, information is now being shared across the Internet, around the world. Thanks to the Internet, school children in Denmark can talk directly to Astronauts in the Space Station, and thanks to the Internet, doctors treating a young child in an African jungle can consult in real time with peers in the U.S.

As civilization has advanced because of trade and the trade routes, such as the Silk Road, the Spice Road, and the Incense Road, and because of accompanying technological advances, we have reached a point in the civilization of mankind that marks a line of departure from the older more traditional ways of commerce. The Internet has become our new Spice Road, and Information is our new spice. Let us pray that the wisdom of the ages has taught us to use it for beneficial and peaceable purposes.

This concludes the series “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade”. Look for more series and some single essays in the near future.


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