Monday, November 23, 2009

Gutenburg to Google

When Johannes Gutenburg introduced movable type printing to Europe around 1452, the scholars of that era had just started to rediscover ancient texts that had been lost to Western Europe. The libraries of Alexandria and Cordoba where filled with ancient Greek writers as well as Muslim scientists and philosophers. It is generally believed that the Renaissance can be attributed to the “discovery” of this new knowledge coupled with the technology to disseminate that knowledge to a diverse audience.

In the 21st Century, we will experience as profound a revolution in the dissemination of knowledge. This revolution is partly due to the Google book-scanning project, a massive effort to scan millions of volumes held in the libraries of the great centers of learning in America and around the world. A short list of participating universities includes Harvard, Stamford, Oxford, and the Universities of California, Texas, Virginia and Madrid. But that is just the beginning. Unlimited access to all the collective learning that the human race has acquired over it’s time on earth will be a reality in just a few decades, if not sooner. So what will the impact of this access be?

First, let’s define what I mean by “collective learning”. Professor David Christian presents a concept in his lecture series on “Big History” that defines collective learning as the one key defining difference between Homo sapiens and our evolutionary ancestors. Humans have existed on the earth for approximately 250,000 years. David Christian states, “Chimps, our closest relative, deals with their environment through their individual intelligence, what they have learned throughout their lifetime, plus just a few tips they learned from Mum”.

Humans, on the other hand, have developed a remarkable ability to store and retrieve information collectively. Through the development of language, humans have a “bandwidth” for communication so huge that over time, more was transmitted than was lost. This data accumulated and was handed down from generation to generation and stored in the collective knowledge of the community. Humans are like networked computers. We can access collective knowledge to better survive and extract resources from our environment. By the way, until scientist find evidence somewhere else in the universe to the contrary; humans should be considered the cosmic innovators of collective learning.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is my ability to write an essay on a computer and then post it to the World Wide Web. My ability to read and write is realized through collective learning– this whole technology of communication was developed about 4,000 years ago. Then there is the computer I am writing with - I have no idea how this damn thing works, but I am very willing to shell out a grand or so to purchase one. And finally there is the Web itself - one of the truly great collections of knowledge and the star of this essay. Again, I don’t know how it works, I couldn’t build one myself, but I can utilize it to access more information than any of my ancestors…and I can do it from my living room!

Gutenberg’s movable type printing technology was a huge accelerator on the engine of collective learning. No longer were the priests and nobles of the community the only ones with access to the more sophisticated collections of knowledge. Every discipline of art and science benefited from the democratization of collective learning with a flowering of culture that is remarkable in human history. Google is our modern version of this same revolution. Today we have a turbo charged accelerator on the engine, and the result will be monumental, frightening…and beautiful.

In a modern day version of the collective learning theory, Pierre Levy states, “all knowledge is contained within the minds of humans. However, no one individual can know everything but everybody knows a little about something. By combining this information, humans can potentially use this collective knowledge to solve problems more effectively”. In other words, the internet can and will be used to foster collective knowledge and function as a catalyst for those with shared interests on various subjects and problems to work towards a shared objective.

As well as problem solving, there will be a huge exchange of influences across cultures. Not only can an artist of Chinese heritage view an artistic work by an artist of French heritage, they can communicate via email and video about techniques, inspiration and share the passion they both feel for their art. Music, art, writing, science, politics, philosophy and religion…the list goes on and on. A renaissance that will dwarf the 15th Century version is starting right now.

So, the next time you use your Google search engine to learn more about the City of Paris, and receive far more information than you ever wanted to know about some rich, spoiled heiress, remember that YOU are one of the great ones of this great age and that THIS is the tool that you will use to cure cancer, write the great American novel, or gather the experiences that will allow you to paint your masterpiece.

In all honesty, I recommend that you look for the flowering of arts, culture and science that is sure to occur because of this new technology. Or better yet, make it happen.

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