Books to read: Knowledge and its keepers

We consider knowledge to be stuff produced and used by geniuses.  Grand theoreticians like Plato or Marx, paradigm-makers like Darwin or Einstein churn out knowledge by the ton, while brilliant people like Pasteur, Salk, and the Wright brothers apply knowledge on an exalted, history-altering plane.  The crucial thing about knowledge, we imagine, is making more of it, and our admiration is parcelled accordingly.

However, there is another club whose members are, in the long haul, more important, though far less well known and creative:  those who decide what knowledge means — the variable group that, in every age, apportions value and style to information, and toils, often in tedious circumstances, to preserve it into the future.

In Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton provide a brief but illuminating history of this group.  These are individuals who produce little that is new, but spend vast energies in organizing, standardizing, reproducing, and sharing information.  They are librarians, monks, lab nerds.  They give knowledge a particular taste and style, with which more creative minds can engage:

Before seekers of knowledge in every age can even begin their quest, certain fundamental questions need to be settled. Do they debate their colleagues in verbal confrontations or write books in solitude for faraway readers?  Do they scrutinize nature as they find it or trick it into doing the unexpected?  Do they engage with their contemporaries or labor on behalf of scholars past and future?  Do they close ranks to preserve embattled truths or spread learning for the benefit of all?  These are but a few of the issues affecting how the life of the mind has been constructed and reconstructed over the centuries.

What the authors call “the Western intellectual tradition” can’t be reduced to the ebb and flow of genius.  Institutions matter.  It is the primacy and decline of centers of knowledge like the library, the monastery, and the laboratory that shapes the book’s structure.  The men and women who infused such institutions with life were in many ways unlike the towering talents whose works they promoted and preserved.

Drudges and fund-raisers rather than innovators, they stood at an equal distance between the creative producers of knowledge and the moral and political powers of their age:  and they served both by their mediation.

A good example is Demetrius of Phaleron, today deservedly obscure.  He was an unremarkable pupil of Aristotle and a failed politician in Athens, whose personal life was disgraceful and public career a string of petty rivalries.  But he became the brains behind the library of Alexandria:  an institution that, in its day, was a kind of Manhattan Project  of classical knowledge.

Because knowledge is both wisdom and power, scholars must come to terms with politicians and priests.  After escaping Athens, Demetrius worked for Ptolemy, who on the death of Alexander the Great became ruler of Egypt.  Ethnically, Ptolemy was Macedonian.  Politically, he was an Egyptian pharaoh.  But in the matter of knowledge Ptolemy, like Alexander himself, was devoutly Greek, and he funded the library and museum in Alexandria to establish, once and forever, the superiority of Greek culture over that of the more ancient conquered population.

But what was Greek culture?  Mostly a matter of oral tradition, it turned out:  of public recitation and disputation.  Texts — even for those bibles of the Hellenic world, the Iliad and the Odyssey — were few and contradictory.  Which version should be “official”?  Who was to decide?  The library, under Demetrius, assumed the role of arbiter and judge.  Its scholars looked at different versions of a document, and settled on the official wording.

Was it always what the original author had intended?  Probably not, though there’s no way to tell.  But the heart of Greek culture was transferred from the spoken to the written word, and books received a standard shape:  a necessary step in the faithful reproduction of knowledge.  The classical empire of the mind began in the library of Alexandria.

Demetrius, and because of him the library, wished to absorb into Greek culture all human knowledge.  Foreign wisdom needed to be rendered into Greek.  The library, in consequence, preserved not only the Hellenic bible, but for our own.  Demetrius himself may have been responsible for bringing to Alexandria the 72 Jewish scholars who transformed the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek “Septuagint.”  After the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, only the Greek version of the story of Israel survived to inspire future generations.

The point made by the authors is that knowledge isn’t merely stuff:  it’s also consensual.  It’s what certain people agree smells and tastes like  knowledge.  Those people are, like Demetrius, keepers rather than producers of knowledge:  the watchdogs at the gate of every culture.  This may bring to mind the conspirators in the Da Vinci Code, but the truth lies in the opposite direction.  By their tireless efforts, the Demetriuses of each age make possible the preservation and communication of the works which embody knowledge.

Knowledge is meaningful.  Information, on the other hand, consists of both signal and noise.  The greater the amount of information, the more desperate the need to discern signal from noise.  This can’t be done by vote or by an endless Socratic dialogue.  Just to get on with life, someone must decide.  Politicians, for some reason, have never been able to do it persuasively.  They may be too self-interested, or too ignorant.  The official discerners of signal over noise have had at least one foot in the scholars’ camp.

Nowhere is Reinventing Knowledge more interesting than when it examines the “republic of letters.”  This was an informal web of correspondents, massively educated individuals from Europe and America who chewed over ideas as they appeared in new publications, and determined which were worth pursuing, and which were mere noise.

The republic of letters emerged in response to an information explosion:  the stream of books pouring out of Gutenberg’s seminal invention, the movable type printing press.  This development tends to be applauded, in hindsight, because it so powerfully democratized the production of information.  Contemporaries, however, experienced the stream of new books as a problem in signal and noise.  Weird sectarian tractates and outlandish factual claims flooded the marketplace of ideas.  For every Galileo one found a hundred Nostradamuses.

Meanwhile, Europe had fractured along national and religious lines.  No one spoke for everyone.  Who, in this chaos, could decide where true knowledge lay?

Almost by default, the task fell to those men and women who, in the wreck of Europe during the wars of religion, continued to correspond across confessional and political boundaries.  They took up Cicero’s ideal of a literary republic:  a virtual entity, a “network without nodes,” international, secular, merit-based, which led the struggle for disinterested knowledge amid the violently colliding interests of monarchs and inquisitioners.

While members of the republic faced a “clear expectation that they would acquit themselves like a gentleman or gentlewoman,” class and sex were no barriers.  Men and women, aristocrats and craftmen, belonged to the republic.  Theirs was a humanism of the letter, which continued the work of the Renaissance in an environment dominated by conflict and zealotry.  They read voraciously and wrote in epic quantities, keeping each other informed of new publications, passing judgment on their merit.

Without formal structures or honors, the republic of letters saved Western scholarship from Europe’s ideological nihilism.  Its citizens identified and publicized new knowledge, mocked and discarded frauds.  They filtered signal from noise.  They worked in an open virtual institution, but they were a self-organized elite.  They told others, including potentates and kings, what to read, what to accept, and — most importantly — what to reject.  They embodied the power curve which appears to rule the intellect, as it does all human affairs.

McNeely and Wolverton make an explicit reference to the republic of letters when they discuss the emergence of the Web, which is Gutenberg’s printing press on steroids, gushing out unprecedented amounts of information from every corner of the globe.  They note that online communities can “become the germ of an entirely new institution of knowledge,” but fail to elaborate.  The new digital age, with its “relentless technological hype and brittle American triumphalism,” appears to trouble the authors of Reinventing Knowledge.  Promoters of the information age, they write, “forget that knowledge has always been about connecting people, not about connecting information.”

They are right to worry, in one sense.  Connecting knowledge to people won’t happen automatically.  The power law isn’t like the law of gravity:  someone has to take up the burden.  Someone has to identify new knowledge, and weed out the frauds.  In a virtually infinite information environment, that is not a trivial task.

But the example of the republic of letters applies here.  The tools for self-organizing are far more powerful today than in the Reformation.  Virtual communities of interest now arise around every topic, from kittens to terror, and serve to filter signal from noise on the chosen topic.

These communities represent the power curve in an age of overabundant information and scarce attention.  They are many rather than one, but their connections extend beyond specialized knowledge because the world is messy rather than specialized.  In the aggregate, they are in truth the germ of a global institution of knowledge, in which the head of the power curve, holding the greatest amount of attention, is in perpetual dispute, and the tail of the curve, representing a vast array of niches working out obscure but potentially important trends, extends over the horizon to infinity.


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