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.