Joho the Blogmalthus Archives - Joho the Blog

January 2, 2010

<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.