Knowing What We Know

Knowing What We Know coverKnowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic
Simon Winchester
Harper (April 25, 2023), 431 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.43

In Knowing What We Know author Simon Winchester covers human knowledge across history in a fascinating and highly readable volume. In the preface he describes how his own experience of knowledge began when as a toddler he put on a shoe in which a wasp had lodged itself. He describes the pain and his mother’s quick actions to relieve it. In Chapter One he writes about a woman who set up a free school for poor children in her neighborhood of Bangalore, India, youngsters who would otherwise have had no chance for an education. From there Winchester discusses the Rosetta Stone and cuneiform tablets from the Fertile Crescent in the ancient Near East. In particular he focuses on tablets that were the ancient equivalent of a twentieth century student workbook. Throughout the book Winchester provides a wide and sweeping survey of human knowledge right up to the present day (or as close as possible, given the time it takes to get a book to market) and the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT.

Winchester writes about the evolution of written works from the scroll to the codex, the precursor of the modern book. He discusses the care that monks took to preserve manuscripts, and how modern technicians are installing scanners in monasteries to digitize and electronically store those manuscripts.

The author has a long discussion of libraries, writing with admiration about the main reading room at the New York City public library, and mourning the loss of the old reading room at the British Library “with its twenty-five miles of shelves, the place where Karl Marx, Lenin (under the name Jacob Richter), and Bram Stoker all worked, creating their various nightmares for the world.” He writes about how Andrew Carnegie “salved his own plutocratic conscience by financing hundreds of libraries around the world.” (I certainly loved the Carnegie Library of my childhood. The modern building that replaced it was not at all the same.) Winchester tells us that Alexa from Amazon (with whom I speak several times a day) was named for the great library at Alexandria. (And he notes the library was not destroyed in a sudden conflagration but was in decline for many years before a fire in the time of Caesar.) He points out that open stacks are a fairly recent innovation, librarians once thinking that the average person did not have the skills to handle a book.

Winchester writes that when Encyclopædia Britannica was sold to an American buyer it became a strictly commercial venture, not a noble attempt to spread knowledge more widely. In his discussion of AI Winchester discusses HAL 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and implies that HAL had the last word. HAL did not, of course, as Dave was able to revert it to its factory default state before himself transforming into some kind of superbeing on a mission to save the planet. (I trust I’m not delivering any spoilers here, since the movie came out in 1968.) Winchester writes about spell checkers and grammar checkers, and then refers to autocomplete and predictive text technology as a “somewhat diabolical and wholly unnecessary nuisance, the bane of the writer’s life.”

Over the span of several dozen pages the author segues from museums to the human brain to computers and hypertext (reminding me of my own foray in developing a computer hypertext help system for a pre-Windows software product). You can see how his writing incorporates dry British humor. And although British, Winchester lives in the United States and the book uses American spelling. He expects us, however, to understand British terms. Winchester uses the phrase “medium wave” when in the United States we would say “AM radio.” He uses words like “quiddity,” something I had to look up. (Oddly, Merriam-Webster does not note this as “chiefly British,” though I wouldn’t expect to see it from an author writing in American English.)

Fascinating stuff indeed, and well worth reading.

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