Daily Archives: September 11, 2013

** A Social History of Knowledge by Peter Burke

A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot is the first volume of a surprisingly readable history of how humanity has used, organized, and shared knowledge, creating along the way institutions (such as libraries), and economies based on exchanging information.

Two themes were particularly interesting to me in this volume. One is the intensity of human desire to organize information, ideally in a way that captures all of knowledge — even if we have seen over and over again that what is known today cannot anticipate what will be known tomorrow. The book shows illustrations of beautiful trees to capture the branches of knowledge, as gorgeous as they are outdated.

The other theme is how power interacts with knowledge, shapes it (and certainly shapes the taxonomies humans so like to create), and controls it, in ways that seem very modern. The NSA may be able to decrypt emails, but governments have tried to penetrate the secrets of their peoples for many centuries.

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