Knowing What We Know: How Information Was Born

From The Wall Street Journal:

Knowledge is power, Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, using a quill and the Elizabethans’ distinctive “secretary hand.” Thomas Hobbes, who started out as Bacon’s secretary, agreed: Scientia potentia est, Hobbes wrote in the 1668 edition of “Leviathan.” Generations of spymasters, dictators and tax inspectors concurred, and so, as the rubble of the Humanities confirms, did the French theorist Michel Foucault. Yet knowledge is no longer power.

Today digital information is power. The quantity of information debases its value: The printed newspaper is dematerializing before our eyes. The smartphone offers more than a different physical experience from its predecessors, the tablet, scroll, manuscript and printed book. It carries the entire history of information. Writing, Socrates warns in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” “will implant forgetfulness.” If we “cease to exercise memory,” we will be “calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” When we outsource the storage of information, we outsource our knowledge of the world and ourselves.

Philosophers agonize over how knowledge is made. Historians are more interested in its circulation and application. In “Knowing What We Know,” Simon Winchester dispenses with the technicalities. Mr. Winchester, a prolific author whose bestsellers include “The Meaning of Everything,” considers knowledge as per the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning no. 4b: “The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth.” With his typical fluency and range, Mr. Winchester then traces the intertwined evolution of knowledge, society and the individual, from ancient illiteracy to the wisdom of the hour, artificial intelligence.

The first transmissions of knowledge, Mr. Winchester writes, were “oral or pictorial.” As current indigenous practice shows, the collective cultural inheritance and identity of the tribe is transmitted by “knowledge keepers,” usually “designated elders or specially skilled custodians.” The oldest surviving written transmission, a “small tablet of sunbaked red clay” found recently in what is now Iraq, dates to around 3100 B.C. In the Sumerian city of Uruk, a man named Kushim, who “appears to have been an accountant,” issued a receipt in a Mesopotamian warehouse for a delivery of barley. He had created a piece of movable information. Anyone who could read it was educated: able to acquire information, able to pass it along. As scarcity ensured value, the invention of writing devalued knowledge. It also lowered the tone. When people started to write as they thought, Mr. Winchester argues, they aired the “more vulgar aspects of society.”

Mr. Winchester is adroit at arranging information in pursuit of knowledge, and he has an eye for the anecdote. The familiar prehistory of the Latin alphabet is here, but he emphasizes the simultaneous making of a cross-civilizational consensus on education and its methods.

Innate human curiosity is the engine of knowledge, but the engine runs on two fuels, experience and facts taken on trust. Mr. Winchester’s own experiential curiosity was triggered at the age of two by a wasp sting. For his brain to develop into “some kind of mental context-cabinet,” he needed a mental filing system. Facts and memorization were emphasized in the imperial-minded curricula of ancient Sumeria, Confucian China and Mr. Winchester’s schools in England. The Chinese examination system ran for 1,316 years, until 1905. Mao revived the idea of early testing to identify a future elite in 1952, and the annual gaokao exams remain “an ordeal of the first magnitude,” requiring proof that “one’s degree of acquired knowledge is both immense and of the highest quality.” The American schoolroom may be a kinder place, but the rest of the world thinks that the SAT is “ridiculously easy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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