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Knowledge and memory

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by Michael H. Goldhaber
Knowledge and memory

Oral culture in this respect like the Internet does not admit of progress, as a rule, and has little notion of a past or future different from the present. Still, in most such cultures it seems to be normal to repeat stories or sagas or epics of the past that to a limited extent explain, if not the present, then some aspect of custom or faith. These recitations must be roughly repeated at frequent intervals if they are not to be lost. Other kinds of knowledge also have to be carefully handed down from generation to generation if they too are to survive.

Print culture of course is not so demanding of personal memory or of frequent recitation. But the general assumption has been that at least the learned must master certain texts knowing them inside and out or be able adequately to work through, say, the theorems of Euclid, the problems found in a math textbook, or the questions raised in most other kinds of textbooks. It is not enough that one could in principle find texts in the library; one must have gone through many books, studied them, found out what teachers have to say about them.

Adequate knowledge of a particular book, for instance, might enable one to find some passage to reread, some reference that will then lead on to another way of thinking.

Most formal education, then, in its present form, is an offshoot of print culture, involving not just reading but studying particular books. What is committed to memory is not the text itself but rather some sense of each text, or some practices of mind connected to each text or group of texts. (Thus for example, according to Thomas Kuhn [5], the philosopher/historian of science, "normal science" paradigms are learned and transmitted largely through carefully designed textbooks that include examples, problems and highly idealized versions of history that by indirection as much as by explicit rules inculcate habits of mind that then become norms for subsequent nonrevolutionary research.)

In the allencompassing space of the Internet, will such study really seem necessary as preparation for life? Today one can find enough texts and, in many cases, also commentaries from many angles on them, to get oneself up to speed quickly on almost any subject. If one can easily do this at the time a need or desire to make use of such knowledge arises, does it still make sense to have engaged in such learning well in advance, just in case? Might not prior learning in fact be limited to nothing more than the general exploration and navigation of the Internet itself?

One reason for schools and school books was that the normal household could not be expected to contain texts that would explain, say, the organs of the human body and how they work, nor would anyone knowledgeable about such texts be on hand to help explicate them. Whatever you happened to learn about biology or health in high school would have to carry you forward pretty much for the rest of your life.

But with the Internet, no one lacks for sources and hand holding on any conceivable topic, it would at least seem. So why bother to learn what you may never need or not need for a long time? Why take notes? Why be tested on subject matter? Why become expert on anything not of immediate interest?

What does seem worth knowing is how to navigate the Internet, how to intrude oneself into it, which sites or persons are nodes who connect one well to other reaches of the whole. Who are the bloggers who will reveal unknown riches or post a rich collection of hyperlinks among which one would want ones own sites and blogs to be listed? (The Internet reverses the ideas of a successful scholar or scientist; such a person benefits from having as many as possible citations to his or her articles. These citations of course always come after the article cited has been published, reinforcing the importance of chronology and the sense of progress inherent in the sphere of publishing of standard journals that occupy real space and appear at definite times. On the Internet however, to gain recognition it helps to be, in effect, in ones own person, a node, to whom others send links from which one culls the best choices to include on ones own site. Since every site can change more or less constantly, here again, one cannot deduce the chronological and therefore the causal order of texts by their citations on the Internet. One can cite a site that came to exist after the page in which one cites it. It becomes more important most of the time to be noted as a citer rather than as a citee.)

However bookish one may be, the book or periodical made of paper or even of microfiche exists in the same material space as human bodies, the air, buildings, plants, trees, rocks, animals, the sky and clouds the normal material world in a word. Thus the knowledge to be found in books, however redolent of reference to other books, is also redolent of "real" experience, is focussed on understanding the "real world."

The world of cyberspace, by contrast, is in the screen. It has its own rules, its own architecture, separate and distinct from bodily reality, entered only by sight and by fingertips on keyboard and mouse (digitally, in other words). Thus knowledge in the Internet era tends increasingly to be knowledge of the Internet. Study is study of cyberspace itself, and, as mentioned, the rules of advancing and influencing such knowledge are different from those that pertain in print culture. One example is the new emphasis on the science of networks [6], for which a growing fraction of the data arises from research on interconnections and nodes on the Internet itself. Still other research on an ever wider variety of topics involves interconnected sites through which apparatus can be controlled, video scenes focussed on and data analyzed over the Internet itself. In principle, these sources of raw data can be open to anyone. The laboratory, in effect, transmutes into another Web page, to be read like any other.
by Michael H. Goldhaber

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