thenextwave

Handing knowledge down the years

Posted in digital, history, innovation, technology by thenextwavefutures on 13 June, 2016

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Cambridge University Library has a small but perfectly formed exhibition called Lines of Thought running until September to mark the 600th anniversary of its founding in 1416. (The longevity does make you pause a moment.) It draws on elements of their fine collection of books and papers, and is built around six themes: communication, literature, faith, gravity, anatomy and genetics. (There’s a short video explaining more.)

The first books in the library were deposited as security in exchange for loans, underlining how expensive books were in the 15th century.

Walking around the collection was a reminder of how effective books, and paper, have been as a way of transmitting knowledge. Tyndale had to leave the country to get printed his translation of the Bible into English, then an infinitely radical act. The first attempt, in Koln, was raided by the authorities, but he succeed in publishing it in the Netherlands in 1534, and copies were smuggled to England. Tyndale was executed for heresy in 1536, but copies survived–Anne Boleyn owned one. When King James I/VIth commissioned his official translation 70 years later, much of it was taken from Tyndale’s version.

Making Shakespeare “Shakespeare”

IMG_20160611_111318Of course, the Library has a copy of the First Folio, the book that arguably made Shakespeare “Shakespeare”. Without it, only a handful of plays would likely have survived, and Shakespeare would be just another name jostling among his late Elizabethan contemporaries.

Among the Gravity papers in the exhibition there is inevitably a copy of the Principia Mathematica, and a German first edition of the theory of relativity, published at the height of the battle of Verdun in 1916. There are also copies of Newton’s lecture notes, effectively early drafts of his argument deposited with the university as a condition of his Professorship and held in the university archive.

I could tell similar stories for the anatomy and genetics sections, the latter built around a collection of Darwin’s notebooks.

As I was going around, I started thinking about the six themes as stocks and flows, or perhaps space and time, with anatomy, gravity and communications operating over space and genetics, faith and literature operating over time, although all such schematics cut off some of the complexity at the edges.

The foundations of growth

In his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the economist Robert Gordon makes a compelling case that the century of innovation between 1870 and 1970 in America was a one-off, an unrepeatable blip of deep innovation during which the material conditions of life for most Americans was transformed beyond recognition. (The dates might start a bit earlier in Europe). He points to the impact of household sanitation and household power (especially electricity). In lectures he underlines the point by asking people if they’d rather live without running water or social media for a week.

But it’s not a big stretch to go from there to say that this spurt of growth was built on the three centuries of knowledge that had accumulated beforehand, in particular through the rise of printed books and articles and the intellectual institutions that went with them, such as the corresponding societies and so on.

And in turn, that opens up a question for me about how effectively knowledge will be transmitted in a world when most of it is recorded digitally. Digital forms of knowledge move horizontally in space far more quickly than tangible forms of knowledge, but we know already that it doesn’t move vertically, through time, as effectively. It may still be a technological teething problem, but digital formats have been superseded far more quickly than books and journals.

Complex knowledge

It’s too soon to be able to decide if this is an early stage phenomenon of the ICT technology surge, and will slow as the technology becomes more mature, or whether it is inherent in forms of digital storage and reproduction. I have a few ten and fifteen year old digital assets on my computer, but no twenty year old assets. (It’s also hard to tell whether the record numbers of books being published is a trailing indicator of the end of an old culture, or correlates with the expansion of digital knowledge and information.)

Certainly by some accounts, we are moving from a written culture to an audio-visual one, which might take us into some of the arguments made by Walker Ong about oral cultures. Certainly, they are different from literary cultures, and while they can be very rich, they are not the best way to share or develop complex knowledge.

Looking after the future

There’s another element here as well. Transmitting knowledge over time requires institutions that regard it as part of their core purpose (as, for example, in the universities that were founded across Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries) and certainly in the current neoliberal climate the preservation of the past and the present into the future is always undervalued. The historic wealth that sits beneath Cambridge University and its constituent colleges give it some immunity from this. But its hard to imagine that newer universities with less feudal largesse sitting on their balance sheets to make these kinds of durable commitments, or that the institutional and financial frameworks imposed on them by government will permit this.

Indeed, right outside of Cambridge University, on Burrell’s Walk, the historic lamp-posts are about to be removed by Balfour Beatty under the PFI agreement the city has with the outsourcing company. PFI is one of the archetypal arrangements for managing public resources in the private interest. It knows the price of everything, and its net present value, but the value of nothing. And especially: the potential value to future generations. Time matters. But not in the ways that money measures it.

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Lines of Thought is open until 30th September at Cambridge University Library (closed Sundays). The image at the top is courtesy of Cambridge University Press, and is used with thanks. The other images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence. 

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