A Medieval Internet in the Age of Air
On artificial intelligence, the miracle of the web, and the airiness of the Mongol Empire
The image above was generated by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2, a new artificial intelligence tool that can create photorealistic images based on nothing but text prompts. The program—or should we say “entity”?—produced the image above after being fed the words “a medieval painting of the WiFi not working”. If you haven’t seen what else DALL-E 2 can do, you can find more examples of its handiwork here—come back once you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor.
Until recently, AI was little more than a buzzword to most of us. A joke, even, as anyone who’s dealt with a corporate chatbot might attest. We’re not laughing now. For the first time, we’re confronted with the staggering potential of this technology. Shit, as they say, has gotten real. If AI can do this now, imagine what it will be able to do in ten years. Then try a hundred. As things stand, it’s the illustrators we need to feel sorry for. But first they came for the illustrators…
To an astrologer, the timing of this development is remarkable. It comes little more than a year after the Great Conjunction in Aquarius of December 2020 ushered in the end of the Age of Earth and the true beginning of the Age of Air. Elemental Air is associated with the rational mind, among other things. In my first article on Ages of Air, I noted how these epochs have consistently coincided with great intellectual developments—leaps in intelligence, we might say.
Here’s a tweet from a scholar of medieval Chinese Buddhology who isn’t—as far as I can tell—an astrologer:
He’s referring to Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Christian and Western philosophy, and Dogen, who brought Soto Zen, the largest of the three traditional Zen sects in Japanese Buddhism, to Japan. Both are towering figures in their respective traditions, and both were contemporaries in the last Age of Air (1186-1425), embodying its highest potentials at opposite ends of the planet.
Returning to DALL-E 2’s hapless medievals trying to find a WiFi signal, the reality is that, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, any human of the Middle Ages would undoubtedly find the Internet sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. As you read this, you’re almost certainly thousands of kilometres away from me. Yet a network is delivering my words to you across the globe at lightning speed. Surely no technology of this kind has existed before—or has it?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to segue into a thing about Atlantis. But in an archetypal sense, structures like the Internet certainly have existed before. The telegraph, which enabled rapid electrical transmission of messages across large distances, wasn’t invented until the early 19th century. Before then, we have to go back more than half a millennium to find a truly impressive information transmission network spanning the globe. Indeed, we have to go all the way back to the 13th century—yes, we’re turning once again to the last Age of Air.
In 1206, a man named Temujin managed to unite several nomadic tribes of horsemen living on the steppes of Northeast Asia into a single clan. That man became known as Genghis Khan and the empire he founded, the Mongol Empire, would become the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen. By 1279, the empire stretched from the Sea of Japan to Eastern Europe, and covered 24 million square kilometres of territory.
How did the Mongols do it? Their sheer ruthlessness and skill on the battlefield had much to do with it. But intriguingly, their society and way of war embodied the qualities of elemental Air in important ways. The Mongols were horsemen who fought with bows, wearing light armour and overwhelming their enemies with their sheer speed of advance. They were master communicators, using gongs and drums to convey orders on the battlefield. And they used smart tactics, disbanding and regrouping in confusing ways to bamboozle and overwhelm their enemies.
But as we’re seeing in the conflict currently unfolding in Ukraine, war in an Age of Air is information war. And the Mongols were masters of spycraft, propaganda and deception. They never went into battle without knowing their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses inside out, using merchants, priests and defectors to gather intelligence in advance. And they used the most brutal forms of propaganda to win battles before an arrow was even let fly:
When a city was captured, for example, the entire civilian population could be executed - men, women, children, priests, even the cats and dogs - with a handful of survivors allowed to escape and tell of the atrocity in the neighbouring towns. Consequently, when towns heard of the Mongol's approach many surrendered without a fight in the hope of clemency, which was often given.
Nobody wanted to fight the Mongols, enabling them to amass their gargantuan empire faster than any conqueror since Alexander the Great (who also lived in an Age of Air). But even today, growing and managing an empire of that size would be an enormous challenge. How did they coordinate over such vast distances? They had a trick up their sleeve. It was called the “Yam”.
The Mongol Yam was an ingenious communications network that enabled messages to be sent over long distances faster than ever before. As the empire grew, the Mongols set up relay stations every 30 to 60 kilometres. Every post consisted of lodging and stables and was kept supplied with horses. A Yam messenger would ride from one station to another as fast as possible. If he needed to rest, he could hand his message to a fresh rider, who would carry it to the next post. Or he could change horse, and continue himself. In this way, messages could travel non-stop at the speed of a horse at full gallop, up to 300 kilometres in a single day. No other civilisation on Earth had anything like it, and although systems of this kind had existed in ancient times, none came close to the Yam for sheer size or efficiency. It was the Internet of its time. As in life, as in astrology: there is nothing new under the Sun.
Despite their martial genius, the empire of the Mongols wasn’t to last. After Genghis Khan’s descendant Möngke Khan died in 1259 without a successor, infighting began that led to civil war and the division of the empire. A similar fate befell the empire of Alexander the Great in the Age of Air of the classical era. Try as you might, you can’t build lasting structures out of Air.