Storing the World’s Knowledge

When predicting the future developments in writing technology and the directions of knowledge storage at the close of World War II, Vannevar Bush (1945) was faced with a very different world than those of us who consider these technologies in the year 2012.  Although concerned with many issues, Bush mentions the overwhelming amount of knowledge available to the world and questions how this volume of knowledge can be utilized and profited from (1945, pg. 9).  It is easy to understand that the sheer volume of knowledge was (and still is) beyond any individual’s ability to obtain, but Bush emphasizes the question of whether or not any record can help people to increase their personal volume of knowledge or if these are simply new options for storing the knowledge that no one individual can hold within their own mind.

Although many of the new options that Bush suggests are now common and a part of our daily lives, the ways in which knowledge is gained have not made similar leaps.  Knowledge is, quite often, still obtained by reading, although the format of the information may have shifted from books to the Internet.  This again raises questions about how our knowledge is stored and what the best ways to preserve knowledge are.  When considering the drastic decline in sales of Encyclopaedia Britannica in its traditional text form and the increasing focus on online and CD-ROM versions (The Patriot News, 1998) the question of knowledge storage is given a practical form.  Do libraries need to continue buying texts or should they invest only in online sources of information?  Is the tangible book losing value?

Although the information remains mostly the same despite the different mediums, the question is whether or not our new storage options are increasing or decreasing the amount of knowledge that is gained from the process of seeking out information.  Even in 1945, Bush questioned how moving directly to a piece of information might affect what knowledge is gained, as the process of learning becomes more focused upon making connections and relating information to other knowledge.  With the Internet and other technological options, knowledge is often found by moving directly to the topic, rather than searching through a text which, although effective, does impact what is gained in the process.  As the Patriot News suggests, learners have lost something in the process of moving knowledge storage more completely towards technology, as they no longer invest time in “wander[ing] down the hall with Henry VII” (1998, para. 8) since the format of the knowledge brings them directly to the necessary information with fewer diversions.  At the same time, however, I cannot help but wonder if the speed with which information can be found provides learners with more time to diverge.  As the speed of knowledge gain is increased, those seeking knowledge can more readily seek out answers to other questions that, if knowledge is based solely in books, might otherwise go unanswered due to limitations on time and accessibility.  If this is the case, is the change in knowledge storage beneficial due to the increase in speed and improvements in access to knowledge that accompanied it or is the lack of ‘wandering’ a negative that is actually detracting from our knowledge?

Whether beneficial or detrimental, knowledge storage must continue to move towards technology in order to keep pace with knowledge itself.  If knowledge may only be presented in books there is little that can be done to preserve everything, particularly given the rapid pace of knowledge growth.  Ten years ago the volume of accessible knowledge was “doubling every five years” (Stehr, 2001, p. 89), a pace at which we would certainly experience loss if books were the only method of storage, due simply to the fact that production would not be able to easily facilitate widespread dispersal of such knowledge.  The Internet and possible future technologies, however, fills this need by allowing speedy sharing of information around the world.

Although there are gains and losses with the development of technology based knowledge storage, the same can be said of most changes in our world.  The question must instead be whether it is beneficial for those who are making use of it.  As long as the development of technology does not eliminate the creation of books, then both options remain viable, each with different positive and negative aspects for individuals and groups.  As well, with the pace of change, knowledge expansion, and technological development, it is nearly impossible to predict, as Bush tried to do, where the future will bring our knowledge and what format it will take along the way.

References

Bush, V. (1945).  As we may think. Atlantic magazine. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com.

Stehr, N. (2001).  A world made of knowledge. Society 39(1). Pp. 89-92.

The Patriot News. (1998).  Britannica adjusts to technology, remains a full volume of knowledge.  Pennsylvania: Harrisburg.

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One Response to Storing the World’s Knowledge

  1. smyers says:

    Meggan, excellent look at the ever evolving state of communication tools and the ways in which information is stored. You may be interested in checking out my Commentary 3 on Digital Preservation. I agree with you, and Bush, that we cannot possibily predict what is yet to come but we should do all we can to secure our cultural identity along the way, as best we can.

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