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.

By Laura Miller

Aug. 28, 2008 | 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.