One photo a day until I meet Jonathan Harris

10th March

Today I wrote to my cousin Tim.

About 5 years ago, Tim was ordained as a buddhist monk. This is something I'm very proud of, even though I can't exactly say why. After discovering about a year ago that, yes, monks have email addresses too, we have had some very nice exchanges. Its even as a direct result of one of his emails that I have my current job (which I'm rather happy with), although that's story for another time.

So why was I writing to Tim today?
Well, about a month ago I wandered into the Bilbliothèque nationale de France, the biggest library in the country. Sitting just beside the Seine, it's a striking assembly of four huge buildings which give you impression that you are walking around inside a large super-computer. You could probably find almost anything you wanted in there, providing of course you had enough time to fill out reams of paperwork and get past the screening interview. There are however a select few items of the collection on display for anyone walking in off the street. Two of these items are the huge Globes de Coronelli.

The story of these globes is quite remarkable. Basically there was this Cardinal called César d'Estrées, whom in 1680 was posted to Rome as an ambassador representing Louis 14th (aka the Sun King), then King of France. D'Estrées was a little worried about job security, so was looking for a way to "get in good" with his boss. While visiting the Duke of Parma's luxurious demeure in Piacenza, he was suitably impressed by two large globes (each about 2m in diameter) that the Duke had on display. One globe portrayed the then charted territory of the earth and the other showed the stars, constellations and planets as seen from the earth. D'Estrées figured that if he made the King a present of two similar globes, it might impress him enough to eliminate any prospect of early redundancy. The Duke informed d'Estrées that the globes were made by Franciscan monk called Vincenzo Coronelli. D'Estrées then travelled to Venice to meet Coronelli and cut a deal with the monk. Not to be outdone by the Italians, the globes that d'Estrées commissioned for the french king were to be almost 4 meters in diameter, and would end up weighing almost 2 tonnes each. Because the globes would be too large and heavy to transport, Coronelli travelled to Paris where d'Estrées put him up for the entire 3 years it took to construct the globes sur place. Coronelli worked hard, procuring the latest maps from all over europe in order to make sure the geography displayed on the terrestrial globe was as accurate as possible. For the celestial globe he calculated the exact locations of the the stars and planets as seen from earth on the 5th of September 1638 - the Sun King's date of birth. In 1863, with the globes basically finished, Coronelli headed back to Venice and d'Estrées presented his câdeau to the king. Louis 14th was blown away, but because they were so big, the globes stayed in their boxes for another 20 years until significant renovations were completed on buildings dedicated to their display. Finally in 1703 Louis got to show them off to his friends and important visitors like Anne, Queen of England, who by all accounts was pretty bowled over. After this, the globes got shuffled around from palace to palace, then from library to library. In 1901 they got locked away and forgotten about for another 80 years (somebody even lost the keys), until public pressure mounted enough to force their display at the Centre Georges-Pompidou. Finally in 2006, over 300 years after Coronelli laboured to construct them, they were installed permanently at the Bilbliothèque national where I walked in off the street and saw them.

I walked back in there today so I could take a photo of the globes for Tim. I wanted to know if he'd heard of Coronelli and was hoping he might appreciate the story of a fellow monk, albeit a monk of a different faith. Personally, I loved the story. I loved the idea that back in those days monks played such an important role in society. I mean, commissioned to make a huge present for a King that would be shown off to all of the most influential people of the time - that's pretty important. But it wasn't just a spectacular object to look at, it was also at the cutting edge of technology and knowledge of the time. It was like a primitive version of what 300 years later would become Google Earth. In this respect it is also fascinating to look at the story of the globes as a story of "democracy" (for want of a better term). Just after their construction, the only people with access to the globes were the King and his close friends. With the passing epochs, that circle gradually widened as the globes became accessible to a larger public. Until we arrive at today. I vividly remember the first time a saw Google Earth and realised that anyone with a computer and an internet connection would be able to see what I was seeing. It was a real revolution. That Google managed to release such a powerful tool for free should, in my opinion, be celebrated as one of the most humanitarian and ecologically important actions of our time. By empowering people to understand their relationship to our planet on their own terms, you make it much harder for any group, government or corporation to continue damaging behaviours by relying on the ignorance of its constituents.

But where are the monks today? Larry Page and Sergey Brin have very admirable intentions ("do no evil"), but what happens when Google is passed on to someone else. This niggling fear in the back of my mind is what makes me warn my friends and family not to post too much personal information on their blogs. Its why I have no problem sending my recipe for carrot cake via Gmail, but hesitate if I have to send my PIN number. But would you feel any different if Google was run and managed by the Dalai Lama? Here's a guy who we are almost certain wouldn't sell our personal information for a quick buck. In my ideal world, monks could walk back into a new golden age by becoming custodians of the digital collective unconscious. I mean, they used to keepers of the scriptures and guardians of the libraries right? Monasteries have always been known as safe havens and usually spared from attack and destruction. They would be an ideal place to house hyper-ethical data-centres. The monks would be charged with keeping the servers humming and their regular meditations would literally keep the virtual data cloud aloft. They would once again play a very important role in the community as people realised just how much they value non-commercially based management of their private data - donations of food and money would come flooding in. It would even paint the work of Jonathan Harris in a new light - imagine knowing that the feelings displayed in "We Feel Fine" were being drawn from deeply and safely protected databanks of sacred monasteries all around the world.

Yes, well, time to wake up. I wanted to know if Tim knew about Coronelli and his globes. As for what he thinks about heading up the spiritually based successor to Google, i'll just have to wait and see what he writes back.

PS: I wonder if the Dalai Lama uses gmail?