Cory Doctorow’s talks typically include a metaphor on alchemy. He contrasts alchemy and the Dark Ages to science and the Enlightenment and compares them to the difference between DRM culture and free culture. His metaphor is based on some bad history but making the metaphor more accurate improves his metaphor by paying more attention to our present location in history.
One version of this metaphor was the speech at the Singularity Summit, “Singularity or Dark Age?” At about 3:05 into the speech he says,
For five hundred years the dominant mechanism for doing science was to do it in secret and not share what you’d learned. We call that alchemy and we call the five-hundred-year period the Dark Ages. Every alchemist discovered for himself that drinking mercury was a bad idea and not much technological progress occurred.
One day, an alchemist got the bright idea of publishing his outcomes and sharing his knowledge and that begat the practice that we called the Enlightenment and the technological progress that has flowed from it, and we are today creatures of that decision to publish instead of hoarding knowledge.
The distinction of dark versus light is an attractive rhetorical device. From a historical perspective, however, there is no moment when the Dark Ages easily gave way to the Enlightenment. There simply is no support for referring to two adjacent periods of history in this way.
Generally speaking, the concept of the Dark Ages come from Petrarch, who died in 1374. Since then, this period spans the period from the fall of Rome (ca. 500) up through the Crusades (ca. 1100). Starting and stopping points are debated by scholars, but these brackets are approximate to a century or so.
The Dark Ages are said to end with the beginning of the Middle Ages, marked with the Crusades. When the Crusades began, Europe encountered the Middle East. Usually the sensational violence of this period is highlighted and the intercourse with Islamic thought is neglected. The Crusades offered Europeans access to Greek thought (e.g. Aristotle) preserved through Arabic commentators (e.g. Averroes).
By learning what Islam had known for so long, logic and science came to Europe to usher in not the Enlightenment, but the Middle Ages. Gothic architecture becomes possible and the the University system rises. The Middle Ages is a period of the first universities and hospitals in Europe, providing scholastic thought, humanism and scientific inquiry.
Over time, the cumulative effect of this contact with Islamic thought, joined with the freedom of printing and near-limitless copying, gives rise to the Enlightenment.
The gap between the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment spans about five hundred years, rather than the instantaneous movement that Cory suggests. This is not to say that his metaphor is wrong or broken, but it can actually be made better with a fuller look at history.
Could we consider ourselves a part of a Middle Ages, spanning the gap between the alchemical Dark Ages and a knowledgeable Enlightenment? Might we turn to global perspectives as the medievals did in appropriating Islamic thought? Might we seek academic integrity and scientific integrity as they did when establishing universities? Might we be the ones to frame a new world view, relentlessly questioning, as the scholastics did (e.g. Thomas Aquinas)?
Thinking of ourselves as in a Middle Age opens up fruitful metaphors for the work we are doing. Cory’s metaphor for understanding copyright history is a powerful one; only when we understand our moment in that history can we best play our role in it.