Joho the Blog » Almost complete first draft of Chapter 1

<2b2k> Almost complete first draft of Chapter 1

And when I say “first draft,” what I actually mean is the fifth draft of the first draft. Even that’s not right, since I go through the chapter continuously, and create a new draft (or what I should perhaps call a “version”) whenever I’m about to make a big change I think I may regret.

Anyway, I think and hope that it’s in roughly the shape it needs to be in, although I’ll re-read it tomorrow and may decide to scrap it. And when I’ve finished the last chapter, I may well see that I need throw out this one and begin again. Life in the book writing biz.

There are definitely things I don’t like about the current version. For example, the beginning. And the ending. Also, some stuff in the middle.

The current draft begins with the question “If we didn’t have a word for knowledge, would we feel the need to create one?” I don’t answer that in this chapter. I’m thinking I’ll come back to it at the end of the book. Instead, I quickly go through some of the obvious reasons we’d answer “yes.” But then I need to suggest that the answer might be “no,” and I don’t think I do a good enough job on that. It’s difficult, because the whole book whittles away at that answer, so it’s hard to come up with a context-free couple of paragraphs that will do the job. I want this chapter to focus on the nature of knowledge as a structure, so I contrast traditional guide books with the open-endedness of the Web, hoping to suggest that knowledge has gotten too big to be thought of as structure or even as a realm. (I can only hint at this at this point.) But, the Web example seems so old hat to me that I even have to apologize for it in the text (“Just another day on the Web…”). I’d rather open by having me in some actual place that I can write about — someplace where I can point to obvious features that are only obvious because we make non-obvious assumptions about the finitude, structure, and know-ability of knowledge. A library? I’d like to think of something more novel.

Since I last updated this blog about my “progress,” I’ve added a section on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchy, which traces back to T.S. Eliot. I glom onto some of the definitions of “knowledge” proposed by those who promulgate that hierarchy and point out that they have little to do with what we usually mean by knowledge (and what Eliot meant by it); rather they slap the label “knowledge” on whatever seems to be the justification for investing in information processing equipment. I then swerve from giving my own definition — a swerve I should justify more explicitly — and instead spend some time describing the nature of traditional knowledge. The result of that section is that we think of knowledge as something built on firm foundations. These days, we take facts as the bricks of knowledge. But it wasn’t always so. And that I hope leads the reader smoothly enough into a discussion of the history of fact-based knowledge (which I’m maintaining really came into its own in the early 19th century British social reform movement).

I also added a brief bit about what non-fact-based knowledge looked like. I’d already discussed the medieval idea of assembling knowledge based on analogies, but I wanted to give a more modern example. So, I looked at Malthus, whose big book came out in 1798. I was disappointed to find that Malthus’ book is full of learned discussions of statistics and facts, and thus not only wasn’t a suitable example but seemed to disprove my thesis. Then I realized I was looking at the 6th edition. Malthus revised and republished his book for the next thirty years or so. If you compare the 6th edition with the first, you are struck by how stat-free edition #1 is and how stat-full #6 is. The first edition is a deductive argument based on seemingly self-evident propositions. The support he gives for his conclusion is based on anthropological sketches and guesses about why various populations have been kept in check. The difference between #1 and #6 actually helps my case.

The last section now introduces the idea of “knowledge overload” (which is still distressingly vague and I may have to drop it) and foreshadows some of the changes that overload is bringing. I’m having trouble getting the foreshadowing right, though, since it requires stating themes that will take entire chapters to unpack.

So, having obsessively worked on this every day for the past few weeks with no days off from it, I’m going to let it sit for a day or two. I think I’ll start sketching Chapter 2.

6 Responses to “<2b2k> Almost complete first draft of Chapter 1”

  1. Machines, tools, technologies enhance human capacities. The plow this morning moved snow off my driveway more quickly than I could with my shovel.

    In the same manner that machines have been invented to enhance physical capabilities, mental capacities such as knowing can be enhanced by the internet and computer technology. So there has been an increase in knowledge, but there has also been an increase in access to knowledge.

    During that time in human history where knowledge was tribal and local and isolated, an individual might know only one religious cosmological myth. Now we have instantaneous access to every cosmological myth throughout all times and all cultures. Mythology has become comparative.

    The increase in knowledge may not be an overload but a great benefit as we shift from mere recollective knowing to a more comparative knowing.

    The overload arises because we do not have the mental capacity to know everything that we can access. And so in the era of greatest breadth of knowledge, we have the most isolated specialization of knowledge. One is asked at the university cocktail party, “What is your field of specialization?”

    Even within your own field, say literary criticism, there are too many articles to read so one specializes in Romantic Literature. Still too much so: William Wordsworth. Still too much so one becomes a specialist regarding metaphors of water in Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

    The common knowledge of a tribal society – say how to navigate by the stars between two polynesian islands – has vanished for a rather uncommon knowledge of specialization and expertise. We say “I don’t know, my accountant takes care of that, the car mechanic knows about that, my web site designer knows how to fix that.”

    Knowledge itself may exist in a “commons” yet common knowledge may be disappearing.

    What appears to be more important now is not the overload of knowledge but the weaving of knowledge into comprehensible patterns. The historical patterns woven by church and state may become obsolete because they have been based upon restricted or limited knowledge. We now know that the earth is not the center of our solar system, and we now know that it is older than six thousand years.

    It is now the task of individuals to weave new patterns. Only one human consciousness can do it. And that is overload.

    With the arrival of increased knowledge, we need visionaries, theoreticians, and artists to weave this knowledge into comprehensible, useful, evolutionary patterns.

    So overload is a challenge to incorporate more and more knowledge into more comprehensive perspectives.

    The eastern religious goal of omniscience means to become “All Knowing”, yet the “all” does not suggest overload. Perspective and view take precedence over discrete fact.

    Perhaps the increase in knowing is bursting the boundaries of our previous world-views. Perhaps we need newer ways to view, understand, and comprehend this increased knowledge. The previous paradigms by which we defined ourselves are overloaded and incapable of ‘holding’ the new knowledge.

    Yeats wrote that “the center can not hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

    Our task is to create the new center and the new circumference that holds the increased overload in a more comprehensive perspective. This has always been the task of the prophet, visionary, philosopher, and artist.

  2. The Center cannot hold if Everything is Miscellaneous.

  3. First, I was glad to find out here that DIKW hierarchy, which I thought, was invented by some later scientist, was in fact discovered by poet I admire so much…

    Another nice discovery about good art & good science…

    Now, in my original profession (quantum/physical chemistry) I used to assume that our current knowledge of matter, while originated with some astonishing facts – is entirely non-fact based.
    It is based on mathematical and mental IDEAS that are not disproved by facts (but also never “proved” by them).

    I guess the same was true about Newton and almost all physics and chemistry and modern biology.

    I tend to believe – it should be the same in all other
    sciences, and – maybe – in all human knowledge – i.e. facts initiate a process of building the knowledge, but are never the foundation. In this context, the knowledge overload seems quite mysterious….

    It is getting more and more interesting to read your blog posts about this book….

  4. [...] Almost complete first draft of Chapter 1 [...]

  5. David, I made a 10 minute video that summarizes my findings in my quest to know everything http://ms.lt/IWishToKnow

    Knowledge is the issue that arises with the division of everything into four perspectives: Whether – What – How – Why

    I can write more if you are interested. Andrius

  6. Andrius, thank you. I’ve seen it. Provocative to say the least.

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