Monday 15 April 2013

First generation in history to know less that their parents?

Dangerous children? Slow children? Zombie children? According to the writer, Sebastian Faulkes, reported in the Daily Telegraph, this generation of will be the first in Western history to know less than their parents.
The best-selling writer said those now reaching their late 20s no longer felt the need to “capture” information, with the advent of the internet meaning it was always at their fingertips. Instead, he said, facts and figures were readily available at the “press of a button”, leaving the modern intellectual world in a “kind of catastrophe”. Speaking at the British Library this week as part of the City of London festival, he said it was an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far.
Firstly, is this true, and secondly, does it matter?

Faulkes is looking at shift from knowledge as being personal, held tacitly, to knowledge being collective, held in explicit form. This shift has happened before; when writing was developed, when the printing press was invented, when literacy become widespread, and when public libraries became widely available. None of these shifts were as abrupt as the shift operating now, but with each of these developments, it because less necessary to remember things, as you could rely more and more on the written word.

Prior to the first cookery book, for example, all cooks needed to hold the recipes in their heads. Once printed cookery books became widely available, for example with the publication of Mrs Beetons Household Management, or La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange, then we had "the first generation of cooks in Western history to know less than their parents". They no longer felt the need to “capture” recipes; the advent of cheap printed recipe books meaning that recipes were always at their fingertips. Was than an extraordinary reversal for Western Gastronomy?

The publication of guides on any type of activity - gardening, metallurgy, navigation - means that we could rely less on our memory and more on the written word. The spread of the Encyclopaedia Britannica into many homes was part of the same trend. My Grandparents had a book called "Enquire within upon everything" - the very purpose of this book was that you did not have to know everything, but could look it up! Did this make my grandparents less knowledgeable than their own parents? Probably it did. Did it stop them writing down their own household hints? Probably it did. Was this a bad thing? Probably not.

The Internet is the modern version of Enquire within upon everything. It's not an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far, its a continued trend.

If it is a bad thing, then the gradual shift from head knowledge to captured knowledge has also been a bad thing. The introduction of libraries, the publication of guides, "Enquire within upon everything", Mrs Beeton, the  Encyclopaedia Britannica, must all be bad things.

I personally don't think this shift is bad. The more we can store knowledge somewhere that it is easily accessed when and where we need it, whether that is cookery books on a kitchen shelf or knowledge on the Internet, the more we leave ourselves open to learn more.

So in summary, it quite possibly isn't true, and that, as knowledge over history became consigned more and more to the written word, there may have been previous generations where their head-knowledge was less that that of their parents. And it probably doesn't really matter.

An alternative reading of Faulk's thesis is that the sum total of knowledge is declining, and its not just the tacit knowledge of the present generation that he is concerned about, but the sum total of tacit and explicit. I am not sure that this holds water either. Certainly explicit knowledge is much more accessible, but explicit knowledge does not seem to be decreasing, so I can't quite see how the sum total is decreasing.

What is changing, is the ACCESS to knowledge, and what we are seeing in the current day is the biggest leap in access since the introduction of public libraries. But it's not a catastrophe, nor a reversal.

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