From the Silk Road to the information superhighway

Globalisation may appear to be a cornerstone of modernity but humans have always both craved and feared connection, be it social, commercial, spiritual or scientific.

A 15th Century illustration from a Turkish manuscript depicting a surgical operation.
A 15th Century illustration from a Turkish manuscript depicting a surgical operation. Medical understanding was an important element of the exchange of knowledge between the Islamic world and Europe. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

We live in a networked age and an interconnected world, where information, digital media, and cyber pose threats and challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity. If the CoVid-19 pandemic taught one lesson it is that connectivity presents challenges along with opportunity, that being linked closely together allows goods to be shipped around the world at speed but also allows pathogens pathways to spread like wildfire too. Connected worlds that seemed robust can prove to be fragile, a source of vulnerability even.

It is easy to think that our ancestors did not experience the same problems of disease, of new technologies or of having to adapt to a changing world. In fact, however, connections that have spanned entire continents are part of our global history, from classical antiquity to the 20th century. For over two thousand years, the exchange of goods, faiths, ideas and new technologies between peoples from the Pacific coast of Asia to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe have not only been a reality, but a vital driver of shifts in political, economic and military power. The only difference in today’s world is the speed and intensity of the ways in which we can connect to each other.

While much today is about the end of globalisation, about fragmentation and about a new age of isolation and disengagement, it is perhaps more useful to reflect on the benefits of the social, economic and above all the technological changes of the decades since the end of the Cold War.

Access to information is easier, faster and cheaper than at any time in human history. This partly results from rapidly rising rates of literacy, especially in developing countries; but it is also the result of a digital revolution that has been astonishing in its dissemination. There are three times more devices that connect to the internet than there are people on the planet today. The cost of accessing information online is low and is falling, while the availability of material is vast and growing.

The ways in which we access, observe, absorb and share data is facilitated by services, applications and formats that encourage the exchange of bite-sized pieces of material. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in the digital maelstrom, many should feel uneasy about who controls the information we share, who patrols and guards it – and a host of other questions that include issues around freedom of speech, the dangers posed by ‘fake news’ and the problems of being able to find and process useful or reliable knowledge in stormy digital seas.

While the connectivity of today’s world bears no comparison with other eras, it is striking that many of the concerns and fears are the same as those raised by thinkers in the past. More than two thousand years ago, historians, geographers and commentators were keen to find out about the customs, habits and beliefs of those who lived far away, both in order to assess potential opportunities and challenges, and also to satisfy their curiosity about how fellow human beings structured their societies, what they looked like and how they distinguished themselves from each other.

Herodotus, often called ‘the father of history’ wrote precisely about the mechanics of knowledge exchange, paying attention to the different peoples living in Asia and Africa (and little, incidentally, to those in Europe). He had his peers and parallels writing in Persia, in South Asia, and in China, where authors like Sima Qian were keen to find out more about those living far away – and working out what could be learned from them. It is the exchange of luxury goods that has often gained the attention of writers over the millennia – because such goods and products were unusual, expensive and valuable. Commodities like spices, textiles and exotic fruit, animals and precious gems were rare, so their arrival was much noted and discussed in literary sources – for example the gift of an elephant to Charlemagne from the Muslim ruler Rashid al-Din around the year 800; or the dispatch of rare tiles from Constantinople to the Umayyad court in Córdoba a century later.

As well as being recorded in the written accounts, non-perishable luxury objects also enjoy a long shelf-life, as they are looked after carefully, passed down across generations or, as in the case of a silver ewer depicting scenes from the Trojan War, buried alongside the owner in western China.

While elite gifts and possessions were part of an intensive process of exchange that tied the Pacific coast to Asia, to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and the heart of what is now Russia and Scandinavia to the Persian Gulf – a web of connections that known as the Silk Roads – another key motivator was to acquire information that had practical use in the sciences. Those linked directly or indirectly to military technology were of particular interest and value to leaders keen to gain an advantage over domestic or international rivals, or wishing to catch up with those whose capabilities were greater than their own.

Retaining control of valuable military technology was something well understood in the past. The Byzantine emperors were very careful not to give away the secret of ‘Greek fire’, an incendiary weapon that worked as a flame-thrower and was extremely effective in naval battles; the Mongols, meanwhile, were so impressed by the abilities of those who made siege engines in the Middle East in the 13th century that they had master craftsmen rounded up and sent back to teach their crafts to others. Scientists like Wernher von Braun found their knowledge in great demand at the end of the Second World War – and played a key role in developing US missile technology in the decades that followed.

Scientific knowledge was also a matter of enormous interest, leading to the transmission and in many cases the translation of important texts and tracts in order to make them available to wider readerships – and to stimulate further advances. Many works of ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics and science were translated into Arabic, for example, in the 9th century onwards, to be pored over by Arabic speakers who were Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Buddhist. Scholars in Europe like Leibnitz were fascinated by the Chinese work on binary principles, and wrote excitedly to ask Western visitors to China to send back materials that he could study, learn from and react to.

Commercial information was also highly prized. In late antiquity, according to a story that later became popular (though whether it is strictly true is another matter), the secrets of silk-making were conveyed to Constantinople by monks who explained details of the process and also smuggled silk-worms with them – helping to establish an industry that was not just lucrative in financial terms, but hugely important when the emperors of Constantinople sent precious fabrics as diplomatic gifts to other leaders around the Mediterranean and in Europe.

Of course, part of the significance of any knowledge comes from its codification and the ability to share this. The most aggressive at doing both have been the priesthoods of the global religions that have dominated world faiths for centuries and in some cases millennia. Buddhist monks were extremely anxious that faithful copies of the Buddha’s teachings and examples from his life were captured accurately; the same was true, in time, for the evangelists who wrote about Jesus Christ: recording precisely what words had been used, agreeing what they meant and how they were to be understood became a matter of profound importance in the Christian church – and not just in its earliest phases. Discussion, disagreement and debate between the clergy have been constant themes in the history of Christianity and the Christian church.

The same is true with Islam, where establishing precisely which messages had been revealed to Mohammed in the 7th century required a formal codification in a single volume that is now known as the Koran (literally: the recitation) – and concurrently, the suppression of variants, and of versions that recorded something different. In Judaism too, great store was placed on assuring standardisation of the content of the Torah, the Jewish bible. Messages passed by God, in this case through Moses, needed to be captured exactly before being passed along to the faithful. Different religions had different methods of expansion and propagation – with some of those driven by their faith to inform, spread their knowledge and evangelise among new communities. The geographic diffusion of faiths like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam was closely linked to transport links and to trade routes. Commercial exchange naturally brought (and brings) the opportunity to do more than just buy and sell products: it also facilitates and encourages the spread of ideas about food, fashion, entertainment and much more besides – including, of course, the divine.

Indeed, the correlation of trade routes and religions that did not actively seek to recruit new members – such as Judaism, where faith and ethnicity were closely bound up together – found incentives to spread into new locations as exchanges between traders and merchants galvanised towns, cities and communities. Although much of the commerce along the Silk Roads, the world’s primary web of networks from antiquity to the early modern period was local, with towns serving as local hubs for their hinterlands and being linked with immediate neighbours, elite, high-value goods that were traded in small quantities offered the opportunity for substantial profits.

The shipment of valuable commodities and products, like jewels and fabrics, precious metals and spices required security measures to ensure safe passage of goods and merchants alike. This was provided in the first instance by states themselves, which took precautions to ensure that travellers – and traders – were not harassed. This was partly in order to ensure stability within their own kingdoms; but the scale and nature of systems put in place also make clear that another motivation was to establish conditions that facilitated business, with the aim of generating taxable revenues.

Evidence from the Kingdom of Khotan in what is now western China that is more than a thousand years old explains how squads of militia were sent on rotation into the countryside to patrol the region and to investigate any unusual occurrences. Reports about the calmness of daily life in Syria, where no one feared brigands, circulated thousands of miles away, while writers like the famous traveller Ibn Battuta, whose adventures took him from North Africa deep into South and East Asia as well as the Middle East, commented with wonder about how easy it was to move around China, with the wealthy being able to do so without any fear of being harassed or robbed; they talk not only of the sophistication of states many centuries ago, but also of the way that efforts were made to enable goods and people to circulate.

This did not mean that people did not get cheated: in fact, as guides like that written by the Florentine merchant and politician Pegolotti reveal, being safe on one’s travels did not stop one getting taken for a ride. There were risks of being ripped off if you did not have local knowledge – with Pegolotti recommending that guides who knew what they were doing, where they were going, and perhaps just as importantly, who was who, were worth every penny. Having knowledge and being street-smart were separate skills in the past, just as they are today.

For others, though, alternative solutions were found for the problems of how to move goods and money around safely. In some cases, currency was issued that looked and weighed the same as others, in order to make buying and selling easier. In other cases, what might be considered as single currencies became popular far away from the locations where the coinage was minted. So many silver coins struck in Central Asia found their way north along the river systems of what is now Ukraine and Russia, that it is both logical and plausible to believe that those responsible for bringing them – the Scandinavian Vikings – relied on these pieces to trade with each other, as well as with local communities.

In China, and then elsewhere, paper money that did not reflect actual value began to be issued at least by the 13th century, with notes having a notional, promissory value that could be relied on by the owner across a wide region. This practice eventually caught on all around the world, replacing the reliance on gold and silver in the first instance, and also on the bulk carriage that moving large volumes of both involved.

However, while China typically gets credit for the introduction of paper money and banknotes, communities all along the Silk Roads had long relied on credit. Moving money or goods long distances was itself expensive and could also leave what would now be called a trade deficit of goods and payments ending up in the wrong place. One way to deal with this was to create closed credit networks, typically between minority communities that were distinct either religiously, ethnically or linguistically – or all three.

As such, a key part of the history of the Silk Roads involves the role played by peoples who were themselves a part of communities that spanned long distances. These included the Sogdians, referred to in the 7th-century Chinese Sui Shu (Book of Sui) as highly skilled merchants; Jews, whose presence across the Middle East and Central Asia is testified to by a rich literature, as well as multiple magnificent synagogues; and Armenians who became heavily involved in trade between South Asia and Iran, as well as the world beyond, in the early modern period.

Indeed, the engagement of Europeans in the Americas as well as in Africa, Asia and Oceania can be viewed through a similar lens, at least in its initial stages, with the British, Dutch, French and Spanish arriving in small numbers and playing a role in stimulating commercial exchange, and also culture, ideas, information and knowledge.

As relations became more regular and trade increased, new styles did not just become popular in Europe, but also became dominant. Colour and design of ceramics from China and the Middle East became so widely adopted that the classic blue-and-white style is now as identifiable with Delft and the potteries of Stoke as to be considered local. The popularity of chinoiserie in interior design became widespread in the 18th century, as did paisley patterns from Persia in the swinging Sixties in the 20th century. Cultural influences were striking in the way that they moved from East to West, imported, borrowed and appropriated if not as imperial spoils then at least as additions that served as reminders and examples of the benefits of the extensions of military, political and economic power.

Some observers were struck by the asymmetry and the imbalance of relations between Europe and other parts of the world – especially Asia. As Voltaire put it in an essay on the customs and habits of nations: ‘The peoples of the Western hemisphere…have demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of their genius and courage over the countries of the Orient.’ Europeans, he said, had settled among and had come to dominate those peoples in different countries, overcoming their resistance, and managing to learn their languages. ‘Nature, however, gives them one advantage that outweighs all of our own; put simply, they do not want us, but we want them,’ he noted.

The extraction of minerals, goods, and assets (which included people) provided impetus for new ideas in Europe that helped shaped the period often referred to as the Enlightenment. Certainly, the curiosity spurred by contact with new ideas, cultures and peoples, as well as the acquisition of written texts, material culture and examples of new animals and organisms, were fundamental to a series of revolutions in the sciences as well as in the humanities. The age of European empire, coupled with the speed, scale and growth of long-distance contacts made possible by ever-more reliable, larger and cheaper ships, produced rich fruits for an astonishing period of scholarship.

However, this was closely related to the rapidly growing financial muscle that came with the reality of imperial expansion: artists and scientists need patrons and patronage. It is no coincidence, then, that the period of rapid academic advancement was mirrored by one of growing professionalisation of the processes of extraction from the Americas, Africa and Asia.

This also brought with it changes in attitude to indigenous populations in other continents, including those who had great realms of their own. As one leading scholar has put it recently, the 1700s marked a century of transition of ideas about China where Sinophilia gave way to Sinophobia over the course of a hundred years. This process was mirrored in attitudes to other parts of the world, including Persia, South Asia and Africa, where local rulers and populations increasingly became the subjects worthy not of emulation but of mockery.

As critics of capitalism have long pointed out, while free market theory postulates the benefits of buyers and sellers agreeing on a price that is mutually acceptable without government interference, the realities are that this system can easily become unbalanced when dominated by the pursuit short-term profits. The case of the East India Company provides one good example of this, when the incentives and rewards were so lavish as to prove irresistible; the global financial crisis, in part spurred by the insatiable appetites of financiers to devise more and more complex instruments that seemed too good to be true (and turned out to be just that) provides another.

The parallels between the past and present are also instructive when it comes to patterns not only of trade in general, but of information, knowledge and data in particular. Today’s priesthood, who wield enormous power both personally and institutionally, are the digital pioneers whose companies are the new empires of the 21st century. Although companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others call those who enjoy their services ‘users’, rather than customers or clients, in order to create the impression of egalitarianism, the reality is that the services provided by these titans are not free. Rather, the contracts we enter – both literally and metaphorically – are ones that make us subject to the power centres in each case. In each case, the voluminous ‘terms and conditions’ that we sign to give our approval to the way that our data is used is given away with a single click, ceding at a stroke what we do, what we find out, who we connect with, where we are, and more besides.

We might call ourselves digital citizens, who form part of a digital community, but the reality is rather different. There is a price to pay for being able to access digitised books online, to make a booking for a restaurant around the corner, or for calling our friends on the other side of the world. Minority communities used to develop their own language to ensure secure communication along the Silk Roads; the same is happening today via computer coding, through third party authentication to ensure transactions are safe, and through the process of encryption that allows messages to pass unread. Bitcoin, Ethereum and Blockchain provide solutions to questions that have been asked for centuries.

Arguments with the priesthood used to revolve around which teachings were disseminated, by whom and how; the modern equivalent comes with testimonies on Capitol Hill in Washington or in parliaments around the world, where the question ultimately revolves not about the division between the church and the state, but between that of the state and private corporations whose interests – like those of the church in centuries gone by – sometimes elide with those of governments, but often do not.

One of the themes of the 21st century is that of a profound shift in global power from West to East. As with so many other emerging trends, that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Another though has been the way that in many countries in Asia, responses to change have included a crackdown on freedom of speech, obstacles placed in the way of a free press and also impositions on digital corporations which include demands to hand over user data to the authorities and in some cases blanket bans that cannot be circumvented by virtual private networks (VPNs).

Control of information is paramount in the making of the new world; so too is intellectual property which not only has financial and commercial value, but perhaps just as importantly allows for an acceleration of research and development and also of production. According to recent figures released by a US government agency, the theft of information protected by patents, copyright and trademark, including highly sensitive technological and military information, is costing the American economy somewhere between $225–600 billion a year.

When we think about history, we sometimes think about important events, or the achievements of great figures – who tend to be generals, rulers and revolutionaries. In recent decades, historians have done much to open up our investigations into the past to try to understand other perspectives too, not least to include those whose roles and experiences are often overlooked by more traditional approaches. Understanding the past through the lens of women and gender, that of non-elites, of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities has opened up many rich new seams for future generations of historians to work on in the future.

But so too has the idea of looking at themes that span the human experience, that are not restricted to a single country, region or continent or even to a defined period. Studying the exchange of knowledge and the way that information has intensified interactions between states (sometimes with violent outcomes), driven the sciences and arts forward and presented challenges to those in the past, is very useful, not least in helping to provide a context for many of the questions that face us in the present and which will continue to need addressing in the future.

As a species, human beings are extraordinarily resourceful, inventive and also curious. There are times when these characteristics make us capable of profound horrors, when mass media, false or exaggerated claims and technological proficiency enable mass persecution on a scale that facilitates genocide – as it did on many occasions in many states in the 20th century, most obviously during the Second World War.

Our curiosity is capable of being harnessed too, however, and directed into the creation of music, literature and art that is breathtakingly beautiful, or of applications, devices and products that make our daily lives not only easier but more pleasurable, more connected and more meaningful. Getting the balance right between protecting us from ourselves and encouraging co-operation and collaboration is not easy. It is one that our ancestors would have recognised thousands of years ago.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.


Peter Frankopan