Monday, August 25, 2008

Reinventing Knowledge

We are very accustomed to hearing or reading the self-congratulating messages that we presently live in THE Information Age. Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008) provides an easy to read historical analysis of that claim identifying the library, monastery, university, Republic of Letters, disciplines, and the laboratory as the major means for generating and using new knowledge. While the authors focus on the Western tradition, they also trace the influence of that tradition in non-Western cultures. And near the beginning they suggest that doing this kind of analysis corrects our view of new digital information systems: “We risk committing a serious error by thinking that cheap information made universally available through electronic media fulfills the requirements of a democratic society for organized knowledge. Past generations had to win knowledge by using their wits, and never took what they knew for granted. Recalling their labor and travail is, if anything, more important than ever if we are to distinguish what is truly novel about the ‘information age’ from what is transient hype” (p. xx). Towards the end of the book, McNeely and Wolverton firmly state that “Promoters of the vaunted ‘information age’ often forget that knowledge has always been about connecting people, not collecting information” (p. 271). And if one walks away from reading the book with nothing other than this idea, the time will have been well spent. This is a good book for use in the classroom.

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