They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

About yawns... and some other “mysteries”

About yawns... and some other mysteries

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Do you know why do we yawn?

This is one of the many questions that I made myself when I was a child. I was a very little person when I started tormenting my parents, acquaintances and teachers with this sort of questions. "Mum... Why is it that we 'cry tears' when we are sad?" (Mum's answer: looking at me in surprise + open mouth). "Dad... Why is it that we laugh at something funny?" (Dad's answer: "Just because"). "Teacher... What is fire made of?" (Teacher's answer: "Civallero, do not disturb, please"). "Uncle... Where do magnets hide their strength?" (Uncle's answer: silence + shrugging his shoulders).

Please, allow me to repeat my first question once more. Do you know why do we yawn?

No, do not bother seeking. Nobody knows it yet. There are a number of theories, one more surprising than the other. Some people say that it is to cool our brain. Others think that it is a physiological answer when we feel tired. Some elders believe that it announces something wrong and harmful is about to happen, and from ancient Maya people we have the following explanation: when we yawn we unconsciously show our sexual interest in someone who is close to us at that moment (this one seems quite interesting, I'll keep on doing some research...). Finally, some others consider it as a simple reflex action. In fact, you are probably yawning at this moment, or do it in a short time: if you do not get bored, you will do it as a reflex action.

What are my words aimed at? I want you to notice that those basic, simple and "childish" questions are the ones that we have not been able to answer yet. Can you believe this? In a "civilized" world where scientists have made it possible that men travel to the moon, have read our genetic code and have successfully sent words and sounds across the planet in a few seconds, we still have to find a good number of answers.

We believe that we know everything in this "Knowledge Society" (the Argentinean humorist Quino would write something like "Zoociety"); however, the most important answers seem not to be anywhere. At least, this is my feeling after working as a librarian for some years. "I only know that I know nothing", as Socrates (a very realistic guy) said.

Daniel Quinn, in his novel "Ishmael" –which was an austral summer gift from our close friend and North American colleague Elaine Harger– states that man, by knowing so little, does not even know how he should live. The progressive deterioration of the environment and a good number of other visible failed attempts at living in a "civilized" world that you can read in the news are the best example of it.

Going one step further –and forgetting this interesting matter that we may know a lot but we still fail to know very basic things–, another feature of the human knowledge systems that I want to point out is the fact that the available information (I mean, what we already know) is fragmented, spread, scattered all over the world. Not even modern information networks have managed to make all information accessible. This point reminds me of a tale from the Ashanti oral tradition, a people from Ghana, in Western Africa.

Ashanti people tell that Nyame, the Heaven's God, gave to Anansi (The Spider, Ashanti cultural hero) a vessel where all wisdom had been kept. Anansi was meant to distribute it among all human beings. However, Anansi wanted to keep it only for him, and made the decision of hiding that big container in the top of a high tree for nobody could steal it from there. Whether he was in a hurry or did not pay enough attention, it happened that the vessel fell down while Anansi was climbing the trunk, and it broke into pieces on the ground. As a consequence, fragments of wisdom spread all around the world. Men and women got some of them, but many were lost and, in the end, nobody could be the owner of all wisdom. From that moment onwards, when meeting each other, men and women exchange the pieces of knowledge they have found, trying to rejoin the original set.

Let's sum it up: we do not know basic things (though we have been very busy learning other not that necessary). What we already know is scattered. In addition to this confusing situation, the socio-economic system we are immersed in makes it really difficult to successfully exchange the scarce knowledge that men and women could recover after Anansi let the vessel fall from the tree (I am talking about copyright legislation, locked information, very expensive books, etc.).

It can be concluded that ours is a complicated profession: we intend to manage fragmented information that is not always accessible.

The good news is that humankind is like water. Before a wall it stops, but slowly begins to look for some chinks in it to leak through. And this desire to exchange knowledge, to acquire more knowledge, to find out new things, to learn, to make culture alive and multiply it, can never be stopped (no matter what international laws and companies' interests have to say about it), because this desire is as old as our species. It was accomplished first through everybody's lips and later by means of books and records' exchange. Now we call it "sharing" and it happens across the digital universe surrounding us. A myriad of free platforms make it possible to upload any kind of information (books, music, images), skillfully avoiding legal barriers, and making it accessible to everybody else. It is true that we do not know what is unknown, however, there are many of us intending that what it is already known by a few can be known by all, can be exchanged, and that it can flow and be free. There are many of us striving for allowing intellectual and artistic human production to reach everybody's hands, eyes, ears, hearts and minds.

Of course, many of you can have a different opinion about it, and some may point to me the fact that there are authors making a living from their own production who will not agree with my perspective either. Right, nonetheless, there are very few who can earn their living as writers, painters, musicians... On the contrary, there are many who have decided to edit their work online, to promote their production through the web, to share it. Surprisingly enough, these authors have noticed that those who discover their work in this way begin to track it. There are many users that, after knowing what the artists do, go and buy their books and their music to thoroughly enjoy them, or go and see their exhibitions, attend their conferences, get tickets for their concerts...

I believe that, in this sense, a new paradigm is being developed, which, in the near future, will be able to deal with the present barriers of the copyright. These barriers, and many others, in addition to be a trap for culture consumers, has also become a jail for authors themselves, who are kept in the interested hands of a few (who are the ones making a real profit).

If you want to know more about this, you may find the following work very interesting. It is the Copy/South Dossier, which has been elaborated by the international research group Copy/South, based in United Kingdom. You will find a number of strategies, analysis and reasons that are meant to skillfully handle copyright-related issues. It also has a curious poster series.

And about yawns... what else could I say? I have been unable to dispel my doubts yet. Meanwhile I will keep on putting my hand over my mouth (for evil spirits cannot find the way in or count my teeth and make me loose a few years of life, as ancient tradition tells). No matter how unlikely it may seem to discover the answers, I will also continue asking myself other "difficult" questions.

And, in revenge for the many silences that I have obtained since I was a child, I hope to find the response to other people's doubts (provided that information was available and can be freely accessed).

Now you can yawn in peace... A huge hug from Córdoba, Argentina.