I spent some time with the family wandering around Pompeii at the weekend. It was a wonderful experience; while I’d been there before, it was a long time ago: the technology of archaeology has moved forward apace; and I was twenty-five years older. [We’d gone to Sorrento for our honeymoon in 1984. We decided it would be fitting to go back there for our silver anniversary, this time with the children.]
There were many things I learnt, much that was brought to mind. Some of you probably think I read too much Jane Jacobs (and for that matter, Christopher Alexander) for my own good. So be it. I’d happily re-read The Death and Life of Great American Cities every six months or so; if you haven’t discovered Jane Jacobs stop reading now, go to the book-buying web site of your choice and order pretty much anything by her. Alexander’s A Pattern Language is probably somewhat less accessible, but still definitely worth a read.
So what did I learn?
I learnt that the buildings in Pompeii that had arched and domed rooms and gateways fared much better than the rest.
I learnt that Pompeii was a cosmopolitan place where they’d worked out the importance of using culture-crossing graphics and symbols rather than words.
I learnt that they had interesting models of re-use: for example, they used the fragments of ceramics smashed in the earthquake of 62AD to form and decorate floors:
I learnt that they took real care in their design, making the roads work as rainwater escapes as well: the city was built on igneous rock which was less than perfect as a flood plain. But then it would be hard for people to cross the streets, so they embedded the streets with crossing stones at regular intervals:
I learnt that they used natural materials as cat’s eyes, embedding pavements and floors with reflective stones as shown below:
I learnt that they cared about waste and recycling, saw what they built under the rooms (and for that matter how they reused urine as fertiliser).
I learnt that they had open standards and component architecture. For example, they had 38 different sizes of container for food and drink, and everyone used the same sizes to mean the same things:
I learnt that they did all this with time for beauty and enjoyment in their architecture and layout:
I learnt that they did all this under the shadow of Vesuvius, a fragile and beautiful peace in the presence of danger:
But you know what? I could have learnt all of this from a book. I could have learnt all this from the internet.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
Mario. 65 years old this year. Been doing the job of personal tour guide for 48 years. A wonderful, passionate man, passionate about everything he does, passionate about Pompeii, its history and culture, passionate about archaeology, passionate about learning. Someone who has seen the impact of bad decisions from an archaeological perspective, someone who cares enough to celebrate the learning that comes from those decisions.
All this time I was seeing things in Pompeii, and thinking about the internet.
But Mario changed all that. He saw things in the internet and started thinking of Pompeii.
You see, Mario’s stopping work for a year or two. He’s not retiring, even though he’s 65. He’s going back to school.
Why? Because of the internet. He realises that the internet (particularly the web) reduces the barrier to entry for information and knowledge; that it exposes paucity of knowledge, and raises the bar for standards in professions where knowledge is a form of expertise.
He has seen his colleagues and peers, so-called experts, fail to hold the attention of crowds, as they bleat on about things we can all find out from the web. He is too passionate about his profession, his skills, his way of life to allow the internet to weaken him. He is too passionate about Pompeii, about its history, about his history, to roll over and give up.
So Mario, aged 65, a consummate professional, a passionate expert at what he does, is going back to school.
Because of the internet.
And you know what? He’s looking forward to it.
So I will be back in a few years’ time, to see Mario. To see what he has learnt. And how he keeps ahead of the internet.
In manufacturing we speak of a “China Price”. Maybe Mario’s tale suggests that for knowledge we should start speaking of an “internet price”.
In the meantime, here’s to Mario, and to all the Marios of this world. Passionate about what they do, choosing to embrace and extend the internet.