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Feb. 15, 2017: Regression

Perhaps because I haven't actually done the requisite research, I've always been fascinated by the mere concept of the Dark Ages. How the hell did people just forget how to do stuff? Sure, there were diseases, droughts, wars, things like that—but still... We tend to view history as a series of progressive steps forward, and to think that civilization could in fact turn backwards is a bit mind-boggling.

Or rather, it was mind-boggling. The last couple months have been filled with specters—and in some cases, concrete evidence—of societal regression. Civil rights laws and contemporary moral frameworks have been challenged by the United States government in such a way that, if those in power achieve all their goals, our society really will be set back decades, even centuries in certain respects. I don't suspect we'll forget how to carve realistic statues, but future generations—addled by DeVos-ian education—may very well not understand the progressive (i.e., fair, just, humane) values many Americans have fought for up to this point.

I also think about something my friend Henry mentioned to me not too long ago—that the internet may one day (soon, even) enter its Dark Ages. Because of the way the internet proliferated, and the mysterious-to-most ways its information is stored, much of the stuff that was once on the world wide web has already been lost. Obviously the Internet Archive exists, and people like Rhizome and Olia Lialina have done impressive archival work for the web, but overall we don't have good archival systems in place. A hiccup in the mainframe, as it were, could realistically (I think...) wholly wipe out the foundations of the internet and send it hurdling back in time.

And finally, the thing that really triggered my wanting to write about this right now: Stonehenge. I just finished Fred Hoyle's 1977 book On Stonehenge. The gist of the book is that, in Hoyle's view, Stonehenge wasn't simply a means of tracking the movement of the sun and the moon; rather, it was an incredibly sophisticated device for predicting solar and lunar eclipses of all shapes and sizes (or opacities). Hoyle gives convincing evidence based on the number of holes in Stonehenge's outer circle, a rectangle that forms among four points along that circle, and the numerical alignments that mark travels of the sun, the moon, and the shifting nodes between those two bodies' angles.

He makes some leaps as to how the Stonehenge people kept track of it all, suggesting that they had a more developed method of counting and recording than they likely had (based on intuition, moreover, not physical evidence). But the actual astronomical equivalences he discovers are impressive and convincing—at least to someone who, you know, doesn't know much at all about astronomy...

Anyways, back to the point of this post: Hoyle ends the book discussing the cultural implications of his findings. The outer circle, referred to as Stonehenge I, is thought to have been built over a thousand years before Stonehenge III, the rock formation that we think of when we think of Stonehenge. Stonehenge I is a collection of 56 holes in the ground (called Aubrey Holes), about which the people of Stonehenge likely moved boulders in accordance with astronomical movement. Hoyle finds that Stonehenge I would be able to predict eclipses to a very accurate degree, very far in advance, because of the number of holes and the dedicated observing required to make them line up in the correct manner.

But Stonehenge III, he suggests, took advantage of a shortcut that Stonehenge I uncovered. Rather than watch the sun and moon painstakingly every day and move humongous boulders and wood posts to track it, the people around at Stonehenge III could have used this mathematical shortcut—basically, that eclipses occur nineteen years after another eclipse—to take a more lax approach to observing the sky. They could set up a calendar of festivals based around an eclipse cycle and the solstices, which would only require observation when something unique and important was obviously happening up there.

Hoyle seems like the type of guy who really loves the Enlightenment, but he broaches a very interesting idea: "The nineteen-year eclipse cycle was a seriously regressive step," he writes. "It worked... but it led nowhere, because it was based on a mere fluke coincidence... It destroyed the need for meticulous observation... In the light of history... we see astronomy giving way to numerology. It seemed more profitable to shuffle numbers around on parchment than to observe the skies." For Hoyle, Stonehenge I represented a noble, tireless effort on behalf of its users to come create a mathematics to describe what they saw. Once that mathematics was in place, and a "fluke coincidence" that was easy to see could be drawn from it, there was no longer a need for conscious empiricism. Numerology and astrology took over—and, as Hoyle points out, they took over in the name of commerce and efficiency.

Perhaps this isn't a regression like the Dark Ages, or the ones we face now IRL and URL, but it's an important instance (of course, this is Hoyle's speculation...) of society regressing in many respects to take the easy way out and to make a quick buck. And well, if you say it like that, it sounds exactly like what's happening in the U.S. at this very moment...

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