- Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet
Not everyone is awed by the Internet and its promise of millions of books, trillions of tweets, and an abundance of eBay sales. Certainly not the authors of Reinventing Knowledge. For them the Internet may (or may not) be the last in a line of institutions engaged in the "production, preservation, and transmission" of knowledge. What constituted knowledge, according to the authors, changed six times over the course of human history, and the institutions that accomplished these transformations were the library, the monastery, the university, the "republic of letters," the disciplines, and the laboratory. Each institution epitomized its era's conceptualization of knowledge and built structures both physical and abstract to house and organize its accumulated learning. These institutions, in turn, ultimately gave way to structures better able to cope with its period's knowledge.
The library and the scroll, were, for example, suited to the Greco-Roman world in which the library embodied authority and the scroll worked as a portable written text that could be carried and disseminated throughout a far-flung imperial world. Similarly, monasteries were islands where knowledge was protected and reproduced in illuminated codices amid the chaos attending the fall of Rome. The university grew up in medieval towns resulting from Europe's economic and cultural recovery, and, during the religious and political upheaval of the [End Page 135] reformation and Renaissance, the "republic of letters" united humanists in an informal but geographically dispersed community of scholarship. The first disciplines appeared in Germany in the eighteenth century concomitantly with that nation's emphasis on education, and disciplinary professional societies reached consensus on the nature of knowledge and its validity. Last but not least, the laboratory and its emphasis on experimentation and the scientific method became the most modern means of producing knowledge. Having finished with the laboratory, the authors arrive at the Internet and are skeptical about its claims as the new institutional knowledge broker. The Internet fails as a knowledge institution because it creates no new knowledge but only presents it in a different manner.
Reinventing Knowledge is a solid, very readable book. The authors are on firm ground both analytically and stylistically when they discuss the earlier institutions—the library and monastery, for example. They develop their topology convincingly and take the reader on side trips to non-Western cultures to illustrate their points. In their discussion of the monastery, for instance, the authors underscore their argument by pointing to the social and political rationale for the Han dynasty's preference for permanent, immoveable stone texts over more mobile, albeit more perishable, formats. For these reasons alone, the book will interest both the general and undergraduate reader. The book is less successful in its discussion of the Internet, however. There is simply more to the Internet with its blogs, tweets, forums, photo galleries, wikis, and websites than the authors take into account. Nonetheless, applying the author's argument more completely to various aspects of the Internet will surely generate lively discussion both in the classroom and coffee shop.