Magazine article UNESCO Courier

On the Road

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

On the Road

Article excerpt

Ideas have always followed in the wake of trade, war and religion

How do ideas travel? It may seem incongruous to ask such a question in a magazine that is published in several dozen languages and is read all over the world. If we make no distinction between the notions of representation, belief and information, and regard "ideas" very broadly as all those products of a human mind that can be appropriated by another mind, then we see that ideas do nothing but travel. It is no more surprising to find that there are practising Buddhists in California, that Euclid's theorems are studied in China and that Latin American politics are debated in Australia than it is for a European to watch a Japanese-made television or wear cloth woven in Pakistan.

Globalization, a notion which attempts to describe recent changes and which has itself travelled, designates the circulation of material goods as well as the intangible circuits of knowledge, patterns of thought and judgements. Current philosophical and political trends in the West strongly approve of the creative potential of the free flow of ideas that technology seems to promote. True, there is debate about which views ought not be allowed to spread, whether control of the media does not sometimes lend itself to intellectual manipulation, and whether, metaphorically speaking, the bad money of stereotypes, disinformation and triviality does not drive out good. But the question of how ideas travel arouses relatively little interest, so completely does it seem to have been solved.

This is to pass lightly over the fact that an idea is an invisible entity made visible by traces left by its passage and that it cannot change the world unless it travels. Except in the necessarily limited case of direct verbal communication, obstacles and intermediaries come between the inception of an idea and the brain of the person who picks it up, sometimes much later or in a faraway place.

To conquer time and space an idea must endure and it must move. It must be stored in a memory and be transported. Of course, during the performance of these operations, which may take a few fractions of a second on the Internet or centuries in the case of certain religious beliefs - the idea changes. There may be many reasons for this change, including the vagaries of translation, distortions introduced by intermediaries or copyists, the format required for transmission, and other factors such as loss, censorship, interference and interpretation. Movement has changed the message.

* Intellectual highways

Ideas spread along routes which are changed by technological innovation. Printing increased the number of books and made the preservation of ideas less dependent on the risks of copying, destruction, censorship or a broken journey. With the invention of the telegraph, messages for the first time travelled faster than people. On the airwaves words (and soon after, images) no longer travelled from place to place but covered whole territories, defying frontiers and walls. With telematics and the interconnection of millions of computer memories, recording, researching and transmitting data has become almost a single operation.

During most of human history ideas were conveyed in small numbers and with difficulty, peddled with a human escort moving slowly in dangerous conditions. In short, along roads. For centuries there was no difference between the movement of people and the movement of ideas and material goods. Consigned to manuscripts and illustrated by images or simply memorized by scholars or religious believers, ideas travelled on horseback or by camel, in the holds of ships or at walking pace. The range, the cadence of propagation and ultimately the success of the technology, scientific conceptions and religious ideas we have inherited can be explained by all the factors that have stimulated or handicapped travel by land or sea.

UNESCO has rightly adopted the theme of routes to bracket together projects connected with cultural dialogue and cross-fertilization. …

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