The invention and rapid expansion of the internet and World Wide Web over the last several decades stands as a watershed moment in human history, transforming human communication and, ipso facto, leaving its impress on virtually every area of culture in the industrialized world. There can be little question, then, that human knowledge itself (or more precisely, the way we popularly understand human knowledge) will change in profound and irreversible ways—many of which will not become apparent until long after they have occurred. We need only look back upon other such watershed moments in human communication to see that this is true.
One such moment in the West occurred in ancient Greece in the 8th century B.C., when writing was re-discovered. This event was obviously of monumental significance for Greek and Western culture. Among other things, the subsequent spread of writing throughout ancient Greece brought about a shift of prominence from one form of speech to another–from mythos to logos—thus sounding a death-knell for the oral culture in which the epic poets and their bards flourished. Gradually, knowledge became less and less a matter of what was collectively preserved and re-iterated through memory and oral recitation in a communal space. As a result, the legends, sagas, and myths that depended upon formulaic speech, poetic innovation, and public audiences for their life-blood no longer stood as living insights into the cosmic order, the nature of the gods, or the origins of society, but became artifacts of the past (preserved in textual form, to be sure). Since the writing of texts facilitated the careful pursuit of inquiry (historia), and the meticulous construction of accounts (logoi), knowledge became more and more a matter of theory, argumentation, and analysis, as well as the disciplines that developed from and depended on these forms of speech and thought. Thus, the Golden Age of Greece, an “age of reason” that saw tremendous intellectual achievements, arguably could not have taken place without the development of writing.
Another such watershed moment in human communication occurred with the invention of the movable type press by Gutenberg in the 15th century, an invention that Mark Twain once called the “greatest event in the history of the world.” The printing press enabled high-brow texts and ideas to circulate among the masses, with the result that the language of learning eventually shifted away from Latin to the vernacular languages, the places of learning shifted away from monasteries and scriptoria to universities, libraries, and presses, and the communities of learning shifted away from the feudal aristocracies and clergy to scholars and even to ordinary folk. The Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and later, Enlightenment–these are but a few of the major developments in human culture and knowledge that have been traced to the printing press. In fact, the development of the scientific method itself, as well as the philosophical schools of empiricism and rationalism, could not have developed without the emergence of new criteria for truth and knowledge—all of which can be plausibly tied to the legacy of the printing press. A new “age of reason,” we might say, was brought about by this second transformation in human communication.
And so we turn to the legacy of the internet, about which it would be foolhardy to make determinate proclamations at this early date (it may take hundreds of years to gain the necessary perspective). We can, however, pose some questions. For example, how will the development and proliferation of electronic communication change the way we conceive of knowledge? There is no question that it has enabled us to transmit, store and retrieve knowledge more efficiently—but what kinds of knowledge? What kinds of knowledge flourish with the globalization of Google, Wikipedia, electronic databases, search engines, and web-logs? Is it merely “information?” If so, has the popular appreciation for reasoned argumentation and analysis been fundamentally diminished by the explosion of information and the proliferation of opinions in electronic media? Indeed, what forms of learning will be left behind, as printed monographs, books and newspapers arguably fall by the way?
In a related fashion, we might inquire: who will be the new learned? Will those with prodigious memories become even less important now that Google is but a click away? Will those capable of reasoned argument or careful empirical observation become obsolete in the face of those who can “process” information more efficiently? Though it seems hardly inconceivable, the rapid proliferation of electronic communities of learning suggest that, one day, the silicon tower will eventually supplant the ivory tower as the loci for intellectual discourse. If so, we can only wonder about the security of our knowledge as its surety is guaranteed not by human memory, or the scroll or printed page, but by computer chips and bytes.
Of course, there is no question that the developments in human communication bring great blessings to humankind. However, one wonders whether all these drastic changes in the appearance of knowledge, what it is, how we learn, who it is that knows, and where knowledge gets transmitted, change the epistemic fundamentals regarding the mind’s relation to the world and the importance of face-to-face human contact in the transmission of knowledge. As for me, though I become increasingly dependent upon electronic media and on-line communities for the development of my own thought, I find that part of me cannot help longing for what has been left behind—for the days of archaic Greece when story-telling was a meaningful community (and educational) experience, or the days of Medieval Europe when reasoned argumentation guided by faith was seen by all to be a worthy exercise of learning. And I wonder what good things we are in the process of leaving behind now.