Friday, September 21, 2012

Magnificent uselessness?

This is a magnificent achievement of old-style scholarship, detailed in the NYT.

Now, scholars at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have completed almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000-page dictionary that more than doubles the thousands of known Demotic words.

Scholars have spent their entire careers on the dictionary of Demotic, the common speech of Egypt two thousand years ago. The elite spoke Greek, but the ordinary people still spoke a form of the ancient Egyptian language, written in its own script.

It comes on the back of the completion of another huge dictionary.

For the Oriental Institute, this is the culmination of a second long-running dictionary project in little more than a year. The final installment of the 21-volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects was completed last year after 90 years of scholarly labor.
Imagine - ninety years of specialized work, on something which will only be used by a handful of Assyriologists.

On one level, it is supremely, magnificently un-useful. It isn't going to create internet billionaires or cure cancer.

But it advances the shores of knowledge. It is a contribution to civilization, and a stunning example of meticulous persistence and precision. It would be a terrible pity if there were not resources for this kind of work, this kind of patient application over long stretches of time and the devotion of people who work so far from popular taste.

There is something very admirable about it. It is exemplary virtue, and I tend to believe we need to shift towards rewarding virtue more than financial return.

After all, winning the 100 meters in the Olympics or winning an Oscar for a romcom isn't "useful" either. It isn't always clear in advance what will be useful and what will not. Very obscure areas of pure mathematics, like prime number theory, have turned out to be the basis of the security algorithms which underpin the Internet economy.

It is an enormous achievement of skill and persistence. If universities are going to be under more financial pressure in coming years, hopefully the obscure but real fields like this will be protected, rather than the armies of central bureaucrats.

Of course, there's a much bigger issue here - what is "useful" in general terms. Before, that was clear. It was whatever contributed to survival, whether for you or your family or village. It was food on the table and a guard at the gate to stop raiders.

Now, as abundance approaches, it is probably more activities which contribute to the richness of life. And I just like the genuine diversity of people devoting themselves to ancient Demotic or Babylonian.




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