The road to Wikipedia

How do we know what we know? A new book takes a long view of knowledge, from ancient oral traditions to the rise of universities and the Internet.

Published August 28, 2008 11:35AM (EDT)

We live in the information age, when networked computers give millions of users unprecedented access to communications and data. But so what? That is, in effect, what Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton have to say at the conclusion of "Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet." The authors are indeed hard to impress. Their small book takes a long view -- an exceedingly long view, beginning with the birth of Western civilization in the philosophical academies of ancient Greece and wending its way, century by century, to the present. McNeely and Wolverton remain unpersuaded that the Internet is as revolutionary as it's cracked up to be.

"Reinventing Knowledge" partakes of a contemporary academic trend that views institutions as the major shapers of people and societies (rather than, say, vast economic forces or the genius and influence of "great men"). Its subject is "knowledge," and the "production, preservation and transmission" of it, although unfortunately the authors never quite manage to define what knowledge means to them. True, the term is elusive; one generation's knowledge is the next's rank superstition. In the Middle Ages, thanks to Aristotle, everyone knew that maggots generated spontaneously out of rotting flesh, and this fact was considered to be top-grade knowledge, though we now know it to be incorrect. On the other hand, some people today are convinced that the 1969 moon landing never really happened, and despite the so-called evidence they've marshaled in defense of this belief, hardly anyone would call it knowledge.

Whatever, exactly, knowledge is, McNeely and Wolverton see it as having been "fundamentally reinvented fully six times in the history of the West." The six institutions that achieved these reinventions are the library, the monastery, the university, the "Republic of Letters," the disciplines and the laboratory. Each characterized and embodied its own age's conception of knowledge. Each, the authors insist, gave way to the next age's institution as knowledge was once again reinvented, losing its central role in the process.

At least part of what these institutions did was decide what constituted knowledge in the first place. They also organized it so that scholars and thinkers could get at it more easily, and they preserved it for future generations. Above all, they transmitted it through various methods of teaching. Given the amount of ground they've decided to cover, McNeely and Wolverton must necessarily be fairly sweeping in describing all this. Occasionally, "Reinventing Knowledge" is so general as to be vague and a bit colorless. This is a shame, since its perspective is fresh enough that when it succeeds it has the power to wrench familiar aspects of history into new and surprising shapes. The book works best when the authors remember to use concrete examples, as when they look at the difference between how ancient China and the Hellenistic empire chose to maintain their own cultures' knowledge.

The Library of Alexandria, founded and maintained by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, contained (at its peak) as many as 500,000 texts, mostly works in the Greek tradition, but also writings from the various Mediterranean peoples of the empire (such as the Hebrew Bible, a translation of which the Ptolemies commissioned). Classical Greek culture was, in essence, oral; public speaking was the most important skill in a small democratic city-state, and being good at it became the goal of every educated man. Philosophers proved themselves in dialogue with other philosophers, and Socrates himself denigrated writing as untrustworthy; you couldn't quiz a written text about what it meant and you couldn't see and evaluate the man who wrote it. But the oral culture of ancient Greece wasn't very portable, which meant it wasn't well suited to being spread over a far-flung empire or passed on to succeeding generations in all its outposts. Written texts could supply those needs and give the elites of the Hellenistic empire a shared high culture to knit it together.

By contrast, the Qin dynasty that united China in the third century B.C. decided that much of the country's written tradition (especially Confucian works) subtracted from the glory of the Qin and ordered those materials burned. The Han dynasty that followed the Qin struggled to restore that tradition, with great difficulty, since the texts were often printed on strips of bamboo tied together with string, and even if they survived the burning campaign, they often got hopelessly out of sequence when the strings broke. (Greek texts, on the other hand, were written on long scrolls.) Han scholars carefully reconstructed their culture's classic texts; then the emperors had them carved onto hefty, unburnable stone tablets placed outside the National Academy of Louyang. Scholars from all over the empire could travel there and make rubbings from the stones to obtain their own copies of the texts.

The Chinese goal -- to rescue and protect the hallowed texts of the nation's past -- determined the technology they used to record their knowledge, just as the Hellenistic desire to compile and disseminate Greek culture made a more portable, flexible medium the better pick. The rubbings method ensured that Chinese scholars could possess identical, definitive copies of the Confucian classics. The Hellenistic practice of hand-copying texts introduced the possibility of amendments, marginalia and commentary as well as errors, which is one reason why there are so many different versions of old Western texts. In one technology, the values of perpetuity, authority and the emulation of the past were tantamount; in the other, it was expansion and change.

Despite their libraries, Greek and Roman societies continued to privilege public speech over writing. (As McNeely and Wolverton point out, classical authors didn't actually write their own works; they dictated them to scribes who were regarded as only slightly better than manual laborers.) When Rome fell and the West became largely rural, illiterate and plagued by the constant skirmishes of small-time warlords, Christian monasteries became the last redoubt of knowledge. Reading and writing were sacred there, talking often forbidden as a form of "idleness." The Christian attention to the inner self (evidenced in the religion's focus on faith and prayer) produced the West's first memoir, the "Confessions" of St. Augustine. For the first time people began to read silently. Not only were the monasteries established as a sanctuary from a corrupt world, they were also the place where the West began to conceive of study as a retreat where the soul could be tended, instead of the means by which a man acquired the skills to attain social and political power. Where the library had been a jewel in the heart of a great city, the monastery was an oasis in the wilderness.

Eventually, however, Europe's economy and cities recovered, and students began to congregate in towns where cathedral schools offered the training they needed to become doctors, lawyers and (especially) clergymen. The first universities began as guilds for students and their masters, like the guilds formed by artisans and tradesmen, rather than as physical institutions. ("Colleges" were residences, often established by charitable foundations, where students and teachers lived.) Religion was still the basis for this particular incarnation of knowledge and all the students were clerics, but they began to apply their learning to more practical matters that, not coincidentally, were of keen interest to the burgeoning middle classes. For example, canon law specialists worked out a rationale by which Christian moneylenders could charge a fee for their services (the birth of interest) without violating the biblical prohibition against usury.

The rise of the university saw the return of the idea of learning through debate and verbal contests in the theater of the classroom. Scholars journeyed from one center of learning to another, seeking the best teachers and jobs, forming a pan-European culture of learning founded on the lingua franca of Latin and the Roman Catholic faith.

Medieval universities were identified with specific churches and nations, however, and during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as well as during clashes between secular states, travel became difficult and jealously protected orthodoxies stifled the free exchange of ideas. The fourth reinvention that McNeely and Wolverton chronicle is perhaps the most fascinating. Called the Republic of Letters, it literally refers to letters, that is, private correspondence. The blossoming of thought we associate with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution was mostly fostered by informal networks of correspondents and eventually by the formation of academies and societies dedicated to the pursuit of learning. It was an age of gentlemen scholars who sent one another data they collected on, say, astronomical observations, or who met to compile dictionaries or to perform the first formal scientific experiments.

This "republic" was, as McNeely and Wolverton observe, a kind of alternative society, international and intergenerational. Its letters were meant to be shared among like-minded friends, but they weren't officially published, so they evaded the censorship regulations of both church and state. The Republic of Letters, McNeely and Wolverton note, "recognized no distinctions of birth, social status, gender, or academic degree," as many of its members never actually met face to face. Because letters are a kind of intimate communication, they also prized "civility, friendship, politeness, generosity, benevolence, and especially tolerance." Where the medieval universities had been competitive, the Republic of Letters was collaborative, relying on everyone's goodwill and (relatively) disinterested commitment to advancing knowledge. As René Descartes wrote, "with the later persons beginning where the earlier ones left off, and thereby linking the lives and work of many people, they can all go forward together much further than each person individually would be able to do."

The disciplines (a term for academic specialties like physiology or anthropology) arose in 18th century Germany, where an ambitious campaign of mass education eventually led scholars to specialize in particular fields. The disciplines formed their own groups and regulated the curricula and standards used to decide what constituted valid knowledge in, say, psychology or economics. (The modern university is seen by McNeely and Wolverton as the local form these disciplines take. For example, the real authority in medicine lies with medical journals and associations, not particular medical schools.) Yet until the 19th century, much of their knowledge still resided in texts. With the emergence of the laboratory, and the idea of data gathered via experimentation as the firmest basis for understanding the world, "Reinventing Knowledge" reaches the present day.

McNeely and Wolverton are skeptical about the Internet because they see it not as a way of generating new knowledge (like the laboratory) but as simply a new method of presenting information. The Internet does, however, reorganize the knowledge we already have, and since they've previously defined this as feature of institutions that reinvent knowledge, it's not always clear why it doesn't qualify as well as, say, the monastery. What the Internet doesn't have, and the laboratory definitely does, is authority. "I read it on the Internet" has become a joke about the unreliability of the Web, whereas "Studies show ..." is an imprimatur of legitimacy.

When applied up close, to recent events, McNeely and Wolverton's theory begins to get pretty cloudy, and there may not be much point in arguing whether today's technology is imposing significant changes on how we think about what we know according to their particular formula. Still, contemplating the way people in the past thought about knowledge does illuminate many of our contemporary frustrations with the Internet.

Take, for example, the ancient division between writing and speech. Spoken debate, as perfected by Socrates and his disciples, thrives on conflict and polarities. It is, to use a term beloved of medieval academic Peter Abelard, a dialectic, an inquiry. Aristotle, one of the first philosophers to ground his scholarship in writing, aimed to, in McNeely and Wolverton's words, "synthesize positions represented by contending schools." Correspondingly, there's a long Western tradition that regards writing as more careful, more considered and more authoritative than speech. Writing is supposed to be the end of a long process of thought, not the process itself.

Conversations between strangers on the Internet and postings on blogs -- are they speech or writing? They take the form of text, but they are often as provisional and subjective as speech. And while it would be nice to view the various manifestations of Web 2.0 as a modern-day version of the Republic of Letters, as some idealists are wont to, at the moment all the attention is going to the ways that its users fail to respect "civility, friendship, politeness, generosity, benevolence, and especially tolerance." Nevertheless, collaborative projects in which people all over the world gather and contribute data about the weather or astronomy are going on across the Web at this very moment, and carry on the best of the Republic of Letters tradition. Wikipedia, for all its faults, aims to arrive at a consensus view on every subject people care enough to post about.

The missing piece is the mechanism by which we'll decide the difference between information and knowledge in the future. The closest McNeely and Wolverton come to offering a definition of knowledge is "everything deemed worth knowing," which at first seems a bit tautological. But that, really, is the crux of the matter. Is every minute detail of every permutation of Japanese pop culture worth knowing? To judge by some Wikipedia entries it is. The page for, say, the solemn but essentially silly manga "Death Note" is 10 times longer than, say, the entry for Anthony Trollope's novel "Framley Parsonage." I enjoy both, but have no doubts which is the superior work of art. Even if some "Death Note" fans think my opinion represents the last gasp of a dying paradigm, they probably aren't prepared to allow that Wikipedia entry length is any real arbiter of worth. At any rate, I could devote this afternoon to posting an exhaustive synopsis of the Trollope novel's plot along with summaries of a century's worth of academic papers on it and in the course of a single day "Framley Parsonage" would trounce "Death Note" by that measure.

McNeely and Wolverton state that the Internet's various outlets for self-expression, "if anything, make the pursuit of reliable, authentic knowledge more, not less, difficult online, by drowning out traditionally credentialed cultural gatekeepers. Relatively few networked forums provide a truly democratic alternative to the focused, substantiated, reasoned -- and elitist -- debate that still governs the disciplines." Them's fightin' words to many proponents of Web 2.0, but the truth is that more of us would agree with that statement than not. Most of the people who distrust scientists or the "MSM" on a pet topic or two, like the safety of aspartame or what really happened on Sept. 11, believe them on a host of other things, like the benefits of exercise or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Without a doubt, we've entered an era when the official truth is easier to challenge than ever before, but do we really want to live in a world without any established truths at all, or where every fact must be democratically elected by a horde of individuals whose judgment may not be informed or trustworthy? Do we want to let the cranks who care enough to make the biggest stink on a subject be the ones to have the final word on it? On the other hand, can we afford to write off all of them as cranks, knowing that every so often a crank turns out to be a prophet? Somehow, we'll have to sort all this out. And when we do, McNeely and Wolverton will have their revolution.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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