The Keyhole

For much of human history, information was a rare and precious commodity. In pre-literate societies, the collected wisdom of the tribe – when the rains come, when is the best time to plant crops, what plants are best for illness – was passed down in oral format, requiring much diligent work of recitation and memorization. If the only person who knew something died in an accident, that bit of information was lost.

When writing was invented, the situation improved somewhat. Now important facts could be written down in books, and information could be passed even between people who had never met. When a person died, their knowledge did not have to die with them. Even so, the intensive labor involved in copying books ensured that they remained rare, and mostly the property of the rich. In any case, with writing came censorship, as churches and secular authorities sought to forbid people from possessing or reading books deemed to be dangerous. The most infamous example was the Catholic church’s Index of Forbidden Books, which was richly stocked with the writings of history’s greatest poets, philosophers and essayists. A glimpse into one historical episode shows how far the church would go in suppressing anything suspected to lead to heresy:

Of the principals, four were condemned to imprisonment for life. Ten others, priests and clerics, who had obstinately refused to retract their errors, after being publicly degraded, were delivered to the secular authority and suffered the penalty of death by fire. Five years later (1215) the writings of Aristotle, which had been distorted by the sectaries in support of their heresy, were forbidden to be read either in public or in private.

(Even today, it’s worth noting, the official Catholic position is that the Index “retains its moral force” – this according to the man who is currently pope.)

After the invention of writing, the next most significant invention was the printing press. By turning transcription into a rapid, exact process, it led to an explosion of readily accessible printed material – the first true means of mass communication. The effects on society were profound. Not only did the printing press play a major role in breaking down the censorship of the Catholic church – its role in the distribution of Martin Luther’s writing was an important cause of the Protestant Reformation – but it also helped to give rise to the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance, as natural philosophers for the first time could publish and share their work far and wide.

In our time, we have seen the rise of the Internet, the successor to Gutenberg’s press. The Internet has made copying an even more rapid process – effortlessly creating thousands of copies in seconds – and has lowered the barriers to free speech even more, as any individual can now effectively broadcast a message to the entire world. Recognizing the danger they face from free speech, totalitarian states have sought to censor the Internet, but with little success. (As John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”)

Throughout history, the technological trend has been toward faster, more accurate and more accessible copying of information. There can be no doubt that this trend will only accelerate, and that is a good thing. Fast, easy copying takes power away from the elites and distributes it among all people. On a global scale, it is no longer realistically possible to suppress any idea. We now truly have a democratic marketplace of ideas: anyone can speak their mind to the world, and if their ideas have merit, others will be able to adopt them and put them into practice.

There’s just one thing I find lamentable in all this. Although the human capacity to create information has grown exponentially, our ability to absorb information has not. We still have no tools for uptake that were not also possessed by our Stone Age ancestors (with the possible exception of reading). As the amount of accessible information grows steadily, there’s an ever-greater risk that the information important to us will be lost in the crush. There’s a vast world of knowledge out there, but for all our ability to comprehend it, we might as well be peering at it through a keyhole.

A person who reads at the extraordinary pace of one book each week might be able to read three thousand books in a lifetime. By contrast, 375,000 new books were published in English in 2004 alone. And that’s not even to consider all the journals, periodicals, and everything on the Internet.

There was a memorable scene in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set in the New York Public Library. In it, the camera pans around the interior of the library, showing the multitude of shelves full of books. Sagan, standing on an upper gallery, then walks the few steps from one end of one bookshelf to the other. That comparatively small shelf, he says, holds as many books as a person could read in a lifetime. Yet the library has so many more. Clearly, we have to know which are the right books to read.

The frustration caused by our inability to know everything is understandable. But while the crush makes it ever harder to find the right books, it also means that there are more good books to be found, ever more jewels in the rough that contain crucial insights about our world. Only a trickle of knowledge may flow through the keyhole – but if we know where to look, even that small trickle can enlighten us far more than any of our ancestors ever dreamed.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • mikespeir

    Someday soon we’ll have something like chips in our heads that will store whole libraries of information. But we’ll have the same problem with assimilating it. To take care of that problem we’ll have to become very much more than what we are. It may not be long before we can make that happen too, although it scares me. I’m not scared because of the notion that there’s something sacred about our current limitations. I’m scared because of the so-called “law of unintended consequences.” In trying to make ourselves more, will we inadvertently make ourselves less? Until we can be sure we won’t we’ll have to step carefully.

  • Ceetar

    Wait, didn’t we talk about this last night? ;-)

    I think as more information becomes ‘available’ it becomes even more important to ignore/avoid the poor/inaccurate/redundant information that’s out there.

  • 2-D Man

    This is one of the things that I’ve wondered about all my life. A statement in The Gods Must Be Crazy went to the effect of, man has made his life so complicated, he now sentences his children to 15 years of school before they can start their life. I’m wondering if this will be the limiting factor of humanity, eventually condemning us to imagine the unreachable realities of the universe. I’m in the late stages of a fairly technical university program and am now covering the scientific theories developed in the early 20th century…. Then again, I suppose I didn’t start doing any in-depth analysis of any scientific theories until I was 16.

  • Robert Madewell

    Hey, there was an online christian bookseller that let it customers compile a list of books to not sell with reasons why not. I can’t find it, or I’d post the url. I asked them to add the King James Bible to the list because of the attrocities mentioned in it. I doubt they took my suggestion.

  • Gary F
  • Christopher

    These folks at Abunga do realize that every book ever published has the potential to be perceived as “unfriendly to the family,” right? All one has to do is redefine “family” until our culture no longer recognizes the term and almost anything can be offensive to it…

  • Pat Whalen

    The good news is that most of that explosion of information is not of interest. Iow I wouldn’t read about it even if it was the only book out there. A lot of the rest is drivel.

    So the problem is to find sources that are on topics I find interesting, are well written and go to the level of detail I care for. I’ve found the blog sphere perfect for this. Over time I have discovered a number of blogs that have earned my confidence in various subjects. They in turn link to other authors, either bloggers or print authors. Some of these become new sources and occasionally open my eyes to whole new subject.

    Hey, it works for me.

  • BlackSun

    The “keyhole” has the potential to break wide open with the technological singularity. One of the biggest limitations on current learning is that people cannot share their knowledge directly with others. So each person must study everything from scratch. Learning is painfully slow. Contrast this with machines, whose basic function is to instantly share all available information. With brain augmentation, everyone should (theoretically) be able to have instant access to all human knowledge. For example, want to become a virtuoso concert pianist? Download and install that module in your brain–instead of spending 10 years of boring and repetitive practice.

    Then learning will concentrate on creativity, critical thought and analysis, and application of skills rather than learning the basics. If the promise is even 10% fulfilled, it will take humanity to a whole new level.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    This article is profound. I hadn’t thought about the fact that one can only read so many books out of the millions available… and I read some books multiple times. Am I wasting my precious reading time, or am I savoring and absorbing individual books more?

  • Jim Baerg

    One of the biggest limitations on current learning is that people cannot share their knowledge directly with others. So each person must study everything from scratch. Learning is painfully slow. Contrast this with machines, whose basic function is to instantly share all available information. With brain augmentation, everyone should (theoretically) be able to have instant access to all human knowledge.

    I’ll definitely want a solution to spam & computer viruses before I link my brain up to computers.

  • Ebonmuse

    For example, want to become a virtuoso concert pianist? Download and install that module in your brain–instead of spending 10 years of boring and repetitive practice.

    Shades of the Matrix? :)

    I’m very skeptical that such an advance will be made any time in the next few hundred years, if ever. Although we still know very little about how the human brain stores memories and skills, one thing that seems clear is that strengthening of the connections between neurons plays a major part in it. Connections that experience heavy traffic are reinforced; connections that carry little traffic are pruned. (Hence, blocking compounds like CREB, which strengthens neural connections, has been shown to inhibit memory formation in lab animals.)

    This doesn’t bode well for anyone who wants to augment human brains for faster learning. The brain is not like a hard drive, a content-agnostic storage space into which you can load arbitrary patterns of data. To the contrary, it seems that information stored by the brain is encoded in the patterns of neural connection themselves. Rather than a hard drive, the brain is a lot more like a ROM chip, its data encoded by the hardwired physical patterns of the substrate.

    I greatly doubt that the brain could be altered instantaneously to pick up new data. If we understood exactly how data is encoded in the synapses, perhaps we could use precisely targeted microinterventions to stimulate some to grow and others to die off, but would that really be any easier or less labor-intensive than just learning the skill yourself the old-fashioned way? I doubt it. I think, to create an intelligence that can have new memories and abilities uploaded at will, we’re going to have to begin with an architecture of consciousness very different from the one human beings have.

    That said, one thing that does strike me as plausible is a drug that would stimulate new neural growth in general – something that would temporarily put the brain into a more plastic state, similar to the critical learning windows of childhood. Such a thing might allow people to pick up new skills or new knowledge much faster than they otherwise would have, though it would still require teaching and practice. It would probably also help brain-injury patients recuperate more swiftly and thoroughly than they currently can.

  • Lynet

    With brain augmentation, everyone should (theoretically) be able to have instant access to all human knowledge. For example, want to become a virtuoso concert pianist? Download and install that module in your brain–instead of spending 10 years of boring and repetitive practice.

    We’d lose something profound by that — it would sort of be like taking drugs to improve your athletic performance, only worse. I don’t know if that will become possible, and if it does, I’m sure it would have great advantages, but would there be anything to replace the challenges and achievements that we would lose?

  • BlackSun


    I agree the idea of brain augmentation is highly speculative. But some of the neural scanning that is being done today (including observing people’s brains to tell what images they are looking at, or intercepting signals meant for the vocal chords to drive a speech synthesizer) were total science fiction even 10 years ago.

    But what about virtualization? What if a circuit were to be installed surgically that was capable of emulating large sections of neural tissue? While hardwired physical neurons are not easily rearranged, simulated virtual neurons could be reconfigured dynamically to present whatever forms of information were desired in the moment. Obviously the actual data would be stored in some sort of biochip hybrid, with a possible wireless connection to the net. Not only would this allow speed learning, silent communication with anyone, anywhere, but it would potentially allow people to tap into other people’s experiences.

    Again, all very speculative and Matrix-like, but Kurzweil lays out an excellent case for how it would be accomplished, and solid documentation of his time table.


    What would we lose? We’d have radical expansion of our capabilities, and then people could choose to focus on further advancement. It wouldn’t be like drugs, the performance enhancement would be very real, permanent, subtle, and refined. We’d have the ability to learn from each other’s mistakes instead of having to make them all ourselves.

    What about learning? Imagine the studious routinely collecting Ph.D.s in 50 subjects. Imagine the average citizen with an IQ of 140 or better. How do you spin that as a bad thing? Want to get rid of religion and superstition? Create a society of geniuses. (Mensa members are far less religious than the general population).

    It’s hard to imagine this really happening, but who would have predicted the impact of Google in–say–1980.

    Basically, if this does not happen, we have to accept the very sobering truth that Ebonmuse laid out–that we will only ever know the tiniest fraction of even human knowledge–which is itself a tiny fraction of all that could be known.

    I’m not satisfied with a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction. I want more.

  • bassmanpete

    It’s hard to imagine this really happening

    I was a kid in the late ’40s to early ’60s. The world we live in today was science fiction back then; about the only thing missing now is contact with aliens. Oh, and when the first moon landing happened in 1969 I, and many others, believed that by now there would be a permanent base on the moon and there would have been at least one manned mission to Mars.

    Don’t be surprised if, when you get to my current age (63), you look back at the ’00s and think ‘Wow, the world was so primitive then’ :)

  • MisterDomino

    Excellent post, Ebon.

    As a working academic, I read something to the tune of 10-15 books per week (granted I read rather quickly, though, and I skim or skip over irrelevant parts), in addition to several articles in scholarly journals. The idea that I haven’t even scratched the surface of available knowledge can indeed be disconcerting. There are some topics [insert random physics subject here] about which I know virtually nothing.

    However, the fact that such information is increasing and becoming more readily available provides a serious boost for my morale. Ebon mentioned that 375,000 books were published in 2004 in English alone, and there are hundreds of thousands more in other languages. It used to be that access to such information was limited to those who were within close proximity of a library (considering the library even had the book in question), but with the Internet one can absorb this information from the comfort of one’s own home.

    As a relevant yet still diverging comment, I once had a professor who said, “More books were published in 2003 in Spain alone than in the entire Muslim world since the 11th century” (regretfully, I don’t have a link to back this up). Another look at how religion tends to discourage the circulation of knowledge.

  • Christopher


    “We’d lose something profound by that — it would sort of be like taking drugs to improve your athletic performance, only worse.”

    What do you mean by “worse” – I’ve never had a problem with people taking preformance enhancers at all: if they want to sacrifice a few years of their lives for greater physical preformance right now, I say let them. And ditto for any neuro-enhancing durgs.

  • lpetrich

    Ebonmuse, a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) is likely an even better technological analogue of a brain. It’s a chip with programmable internal connections.

    Brains don’t work in stored-program fashion; their operations logic is all at the hardware level, as it were, and not abstracted away as with a computer. A CPU uses the same circuits for interpreting inputs from input devices, commanding outputs for output devices, and everything in between; it gets instructions for each set of activities from the memory devices that CPU is connected to. By comparison, a brain has separate sensory areas (input-device interpreting), motor areas (output-device commanding), and everything in between.

    So you are right about the difficulty of downloading knowledge and skills into our brains; they are not as abstracted as computers are.

  • King Aardvark

    The difference between this and the performance-enhancing drugs is the competition aspect. If people want to enhance their physical abilities just for the sake of moving a piano easier, then that should be fine.

    Anyway, just having all the piano knowledge in the world isn’t enough. You still have to practice. I used to be a fairly serious pianist in my youth, and I still remember some tunes as if they were my own phone number. However, I can’t play the music very well anymore because my fingers are too weak. I get halfway through and my forearms start to seize up.

    It’s not just what you know; it’s how you apply it that’s the most important.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Hey- I’m not the only one who gets depressed by the fact they won’t be able to know/read everything.

    As for the brain chip idea, there is always the problem of retrieving the knowledge. You can’t be thinking it all at once, so you have to do it a piece at a time… which means you need a search engine. From there it just gets more complicated…

  • Lynet

    The difference between this and the performance-enhancing drugs is the competition aspect. If people want to enhance their physical abilities just for the sake of moving a piano easier, then that should be fine.

    See, for me the similarity between this idea and performance-enhancing drugs is that a polymath is something to marvel at, just like a long-distance runner or whatever. I love knowledge, but even more I love the challenge of learning, the achievement of it.

    I know there would be so many advantages to being able to learn quickly and easily. I’m not denying that for a minute. Still, my first reaction is to ask where the challenge would go then. If there is no challenge, I’m not really so interested, I’m afraid.

    Oh, and, even more, let me return to this comment:

    For example, want to become a virtuoso concert pianist? Download and install that module in your brain–instead of spending 10 years of boring and repetitive practice.

    Excuse me? I am a pianist — not a concert pianist by any means, but a pianist. And if I’d just downloaded all that stuff into my brain, I would not be a pianist, not as I recognise the term. When I sit down to the piano, I’m working off layers and layers of, yes, repetitive practice, and enjoyable mucking around, and however many iterations of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as a moody teenager (none of those were repetitive, because it’s different every time you play it), building on the time when I finally got to the stage where you can play with the phrasing, and the time I finally crawled my way up to half-way capable sightreading through a combination of being able to sight-sing and being able to play by ear (oddly, these days, if I’m sight-singing a complicated passage, I find myself playing the piece on my knee — kind of the reverse of the way it used to go!), and however many sessions of casual sit-down-and-play-something. Can downloading a module into your brain give you the kind of emotional connection that goes with the dedication required to learn a thing? Well, yes, it probably could, hypothetically — but that’s much too much like the Orgasmatron scenario for comfort. Let’s all go live in the Matrix of downloaded experiences, shall we?

    I think perhaps I’d rather be me with moderately capable, nothing-to-marvel-at piano skills than download the ability to play like a virtuoso. Of course, it’s possible that if you gave me the opportunity I’d try it and like it, but I’m really not sure. The world you suggest has no shape, the boundaries are out of joint. Partly, I have to concede that that’s because it’s not real and not realised as an idea with any specificity. At any rate, perhaps you have a better understanding of where I’m coming from.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    As a lifelong guitarist who’s studied classical and jazz — as well as having peeled my share of 100-watt paint before — I heartily second Lynet’s position. Much of the experience that makes a musician is absolutely non-musical. If you truly serve the music, it becomes another language, the language of the heart. Like all languages, it requires intellect. Also like all languages, it requires personal experience to communicate meaningfully.