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.