Thursday 28 August 2014

Theology and Technology, Merlin and Megaliths

"Today, in the 21st century, to call Stonehenge a computer shows less respect than to call it an ancient sacred place, a metaphor which by degrees is again becoming more prevalent." - Christopher Chippindale 2004,  Stonehenge Complete,  3rd edition.

There was a phase, mostly forgotten now by academia but still remembered by tourists, when the great scientific concern with Stonehenge was to prove that it was an astronomical computer.

And the funny thing is, as much effort went into proving lunar and stellar alignments between the stones of Stonehenge and objects of its environs, as has gone into the "alternative" stories - Merlin-magic and ley-lines and magnetometer-based psychic energy detection. And, to a large extent, the scientific theories have been of the same consistency of drivel as the New Age ones. There's one solid alignment at Stonehenge - all else is, at best, supposition.

There was, when I was young, a computer at Luton College of Further Education. Our school accessed it via a dial-up line from a thing like Grandstand's teleprinter. You got a right telling off for playing "sharks"; online at local dialling rates. My friend Mandy went to see it once. It was in a special dust-proof room, and the size of a large sauna. Mandy was astonished. It was like the modern world had become the world of Science Fiction - all lights and tapes and beige.

The Android device on which I am writing this has thousands of times more power than that beast they fed and watered and bowed down to. And yet I find its specs uninteresting. It doesn't really matter. It's just an Android. It does Facebook and I can read Twitter and see the news.

Unlike the computer in Luton Tech, I can - as long as I am connected to the Beaker wifi or a friendly café's - use unlimited bandwidth without a sternly-written letter and invoice for telephone costs being sent home. I don't really care. In the lateish 20th century, this was the cutting edge of science - I nearly said "magical", but it wasn't that. We'd learnt that, in some interminable lessons where we discovered what a bit was, and how a byte was a bit bigger than a bit.

So the excitement of Stonehenge as a computer - it doesn't matter if it was true (it wasn't) because nobody cares any more. Each wave of exciting science - as Tomorrow's World used to tell us, they nearly all involved a laser, and/or a computer - nobody cares. That's why Tomorrow's World has gone, but we've got Minecraft. Stonehenge is like a computer? Can I play Bejewelled Blitz on it, or lend people a dolphin to look after?  Can I pin misattributed quotations to it, or pictures of sad kittens, so all my friends can see? No? Well it's not a very good computer then, is it?

We've lost interest in the sheer thing-ness of technology now. They're just stuff. What's the good of Stonehenge being a star calculator, if it won't show you back - episodes of Family Guy? Science can show you the full wonders of the universe - how we're stuck together, how we fall apart. But it can't tell us what it means to be human beings. That's not its fault, it's not meant to.

But a sacred place - now that is, or at least can be, different. A place where the dead aren't simply absent from the world, but are haunting the stones. A place where life and death meet together. Even if it's a place we don't understand, whose builders we can't name. Even if we don't know what they thought they were doing.

A star calculator made in rock would be interesting. For about ten minutes. The thought of those cold,  lifeless stones giving us clues to the way the cold, lifeless bodies above us behave: interesting and yet;  shortly  after, quite dull. We've got a Google App for that.   For that stone circle - still at least partly together today - to be a sacred place, one where the spirit is reality and life is given meaning and death is no final barrier - that's another matter. The sacred will call us, wherever we are.

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