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Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic

by Simon Winchester

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333878,983 (3.81)4
Examining such disciplines as education, journalism, encyclopedia creation, museum curation, photography and broadcasting, an award-winning writer explores how humans have attained, stored, and disseminated knowledge.
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Books are depositories of knowledge. Now Simon Winchester has written a book about knowledge itself, “Knowing What We Know” (2023).

How is knowledge gathered? How is it used? How is it conveyed to others? How is it stored? Winchester tackles all such questions and in so doing discusses everything from oral traditions to schools to the invention of moveable type to the Encyclopedia Brittanica to Wikipedia and Google. He writes about libraries and newspapers and universities, as well as about many great individuals down through the ages from all parts of the world, from Asia to Africa to Europe to America, who have advanced the cause of knowledge.

Yet knowledge has a dark side, and Winchester does not ignore it, devoting a few pages to propaganda, which either creates fake knowledge or emphasizes one side of a question while downplaying the other. In other words, he writes about such things as politics and advertising. Unfortunately Winchester sometimes turns political himself and tosses in his own propaganda.

The most disturbing part of his book comes near the end when he wonders if knowledge may be becoming obsolete. Because of calculators, we no longer need to know even basic math. Because we have GPS. we no longer need to know much about geography. In which direction does the sun set? We no longer need to know even that. Because of Wikipedia and Google and Siri, we no longer need to know much of anything. What does this mean for the future of mankind?

Winchester packs so much into this book that it seems hard to believe that it comes in under 400 pages. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Apr 24, 2024 |
Winchester’s books are always full of interesting information and anecdotes. I enjoyed this one, but not as much as the o.e.d one, or the one on Krakatoa.The breadth of the subject gave a lot of room for philosophizing.It felt like Winchester spent a lot of time trying to dissociate himself from “classically trained subjects of the Empire.”I also felt he went out of his way to show his contempt for religion, which felt very much like an effort to make sure he was presenting the right credentials. ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
This is a difficult book to summarize, since it ranges widely over the ways humans have stored and manipulated information in the centuries since the invention of writing. By the end of the text, Winchester has raised the question of what knowledge stored in the individual human mind will be worth when electronic storage removes most reasons for remembering facts, doing calculations, reading maps and navigation. The global positioning system, Wikipedia and the internet, and our contact lists do all these tasks now. He relates a story of a woman leaving her cell phone behind, getting lost, and being unable to help herself because she could not recall phone numbers and had no idea how to navigate without GPS. He considers how best to educate children, the rise of printing, the reporting and manipulation of news by newspapers and governments. Chat-GPT is of course mentioned, but at the time of this writing Winchester had only seen Chat-GPT 2, so he commented on flawed texts that have now been corrected in the later versions. His discussion of Google's page rank algorithms is very enlightening on how search relevance is decided, and he notes that Wikipedia so dominates information retrieval as to drive other data collections to extinction. In his last chapter, he tries to understand wisdom, discussing the decision to deploy the atomic bomb against Japan, and arguing for listening to aboriginal wisdom, citing the navigational skills of Polynesians in open water canoes. I think this lets down the otherwise intelligent commentary, being more of a politically progressive romance than a way forward ( )
  neurodrew | Jan 15, 2024 |
An interesting book on knowledge accumulation, dispersal and a look at a series on men Winchester sees as wise from ancient times to the near present. Not a single woman is featured except in a passing mention. The book starts in Mesopotamia (ancient) and ends with the author's belief that nuclear weapons are unwise. The book studies how knowledge has been accumulated and stored over the centuries.. There is a definite pro British bias in the men he features. I did learn a lot of answers for future Trivial Pursuit games. ( )
  muddyboy | Dec 24, 2023 |
This book, like all of Winchester's output, is engagingly written, interesting, and he ties together lots of research to make his point. Here is a history of how knowledge (whatever that is!?) has been transmitted in human history. Going from cuneiform to Wikipedia and Google. His chapter on modern technology makes one think.

He loses a star, however, with two strange missteps.

In his discussion on WISDOM (whatever that is!?) and its relation to knowledge, he discusses the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) in 1945 (pp. 359-367). His immediate conclusion, a moral one, is that the decision to drop the bomb was NOT WISE. He offers very little to explain any counter arguments to this. He even straw mans those who thought the decision to drop the bomb may have been right (wise?) by just reducing their thoughts or arguments to revenge (for Pearl, Bataan, whatever). This is wholly beneath Winchester, I think. In fact, there were and are very fine reasons (that don't have to do with cold revenge) for why dropping the bombs was a wise/right decision. Winchester has his agenda, so he beats that dead horse. All the way to the point of declaring, sans evidence (or, in my opinion, any basic common sense) that (p. 366) it would be WISE for the United States of America to unilaterally declare for nuclear disarmament, then destroy all nuclear weapons, and solemnly declare against their use ever. Yes. I am sure that Putin or the P.R.C. or any baddie you want to mention will see America's "wise" disarmament and say, "Well, dang, we'll destroy our nukes too! And all our weapons!" Yeah. I don't know what Winchester here is thinking, except maybe getting out some long unexpressed desire to support the old (and, dare I say it, discredited) anti-nuke movement that wrangled the U.S. and his beloved U.K. in the 1970s and 1980s (now proved to be funded and supported by the old Soviet K.G.B.). Silly.

And, the second misstep, his last little bit on indigenous knowledges (pp. 371-374). Indigenous knowledges are great, a fit topic for this book, and maybe even something the global West could take into account. No problem there. But, Winchester falls into the old trope that indigenous peoples were nature-loving hippies, who "were one with nature." Winchester blames "white people" alone for "the slow but ever accelerating process of ruining our planet" (p. 371) as if nobody of any darker shade has ever damaged the environment one little bitty bit. China? India? But back to the indigenous peoples of the world: the native-as-hippie trope is a sad one for Winchester to fall for. This very section praises Polynesians, okay, but has Mr. Winchester not even read (or heard of?) Jared Diamond's Collapse which details how the Polynesians(!) of Easter Island destroyed their society through ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION! What?!?! Or works underpinning Charles C. Mann's great 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, who showed that the Amerindian peoples lived in more complex civilizations with larger populations than were previously thought, and that they used technology to control, shape and CHANGE the natural landscape in ways (against nature!) not thought possible before. Indigenous peoples are human beings, human beings who make mistakes and greedily want stuff, and it is not just the dumb, white moderns that have the capability for destruction and evil and whatnot. Before this bit, I hadn't thought Winchester was one of those sabot-throwing Luddites who think we should commit civilizational hari-kari and all go live in Thoreau/Kaczynski cabins in the woods and eat grasshoppers and leaves.

But, I digress. Aside from these two blips, it's an informational, solid, interesting work. ( )
  tuckerresearch | Sep 8, 2023 |
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