Reinventing Knowledge in Times of Change

Currently reading Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton.  I am interested in claims of knowledge reinvention during times of upheaval.  In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger promotes our time of the World Wide Web as reinventing knowledge.  Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen and photosynthesis, also promoted his time of the American and French Revolutions as reinventing knowledge. 

Eras of massive change, such as Priestley’s and our own, encourage us to believe that our time on earth is the most important in all of history, so important that even knowledge is transformed.  In their book, McNeeley and Wolverton look at actual changes in knowledge, primarily through the institutions that promoted them.

First up is the library at Alexandria.  The change here is from the spoken word to the written word.  That’s a huge change in knowledge.  Writing and books existed before the library’s founding in 300 BCE, but only as an adjunct to the spoken word.  Because authors dictated their words to scribes, writing was a service, not a scholarly activity.  The speaker, not the writer, was honored.  That changed when the Alexandrian library began collecting scrolls and providing scholars with convivial living arrangements. 

During the transition from speech to text, there was much argument about the value of written ideas as opposed to spoken ideas.  Socrates preferred the spoken word which he felt was more truthful.  You could gauge the veracity of ideas by the reputation of the speaker.  In contrast, the written word was separate from the author and there was no way, at least in Ancient Greece, of judging the reputation of the writer. 

According to McNeeley and Wolverton, the oral versus written argument continued through the 18th Century.  It continues today with two forms of research – reading about ideas and talking about ideas with colleagues.  If you want the latest information, do you reach for a database or a telephone?  Do you feel more comfortable with a distant author or someone whose reputation you already know?

Social interaction on the Web may be another continuation of the argument.  Are social sites the digital equivalence of oral rhetoric?  Web connectivity encourages the free exchange of ideas, like a spoken discussion with a much bigger conversational group.  The medium is written, but speed encourages spontaneous interaction.  Many sites have reputation systems to help users gauge the veracity of other users.  One might suggest the quality of discourse on today’s social sites is far below that of the ancient Greeks, but remember they didn’t write everything down.      

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May 2009

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