They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. – Terry Pratchett
I’ve just finished “The map of knowledge: How classical ideas were lost and found: A history in seven cities” by Violet Moller. It’s a packed read, full of minute detail on how different cultures and their cities contributed the development of knowledge over a few thousand years.
You start to get a sense of the immense role chance plays in the fortunes of people when you read a good historical treatment.
Greek knowledge, for example, pioneered the use of observation as a way to understand the world around us.
Its value, however, was lost to Europe for centuries, but preserved in the cultures of the Middle East until they were rediscovered.
There’s this thing that happens with knowledge – first it’s fresh and new in the minds of people and then those minds, over generations, develop a sort of inertia – they start to become fossilised in the old knowledge they have rather than being open to new knowledge.
In my culture, for example, ancient verses have been memorised and passed down over centuries, as perfect as they were when created. Elaborate mnemonic techniques were used to ensure that they stayed that way.
One has to ask whether the effort of keeping that knowledge alive was too much to also create new knowledge.
The invention of the printing press allowed knowledge to race ahead and those cultures with access to this technology had citizens who were able to communicate and learn and collaborate and coordinate and organise – and create technologies and global empires.
The same technologies allowed knowledge of principles like liberty and equality to be used by those without the early advantage to learn and develop and free themselves.
Societies that actively curtail knowledge and prevent sections of their people from getting to them – which we see happening even now – are never going to be strong, never regain the preeminence they once had on the back of the knowledge they held at that time.
But there’s another phenomenon we have now – one where knowledge is created for the sake of creating knowledge – and that’s an interesting new problem.
The knowledge production industry has created a monster of its own – a world where so many papers are published that it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not.
In the city I live in there are statues showing people working with molten metal, holding crucibles and pouring them into moulds.
It’s hard to think of an action with so many consequences if you get things wrong – the modern health and safety system arose out of problems resulting from industrialisation and the impact on health.
But at that point when molten metal is being poured you have something happening that is unambiguously real – there’s action taking place that has purpose and will result in a thing you can touch.
That kind of action demands real knowledge – not the pufferies of publication metrics, but something that you can actually use.
If the idea of knowledge started with observation the future of knowledge may rest with action.