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FUTURE, MAY 31, 2009

The future of knowledge

PC, Internet, and Google: in the prophetic books of ancient world there is no clue about these ruling "kings" of modern world.

Publishing houses, newspapers, magazines are badly shaken by Internet and many people, mostly journalists and those in publishing business, express their worries about the future of knowledge or said more correctly about the quality of knowledge and information in Internet era. These worries are understandable. The obscurity of future naturally creates fears. But the drama of devastated newspaper and book industry is exaggerated. There is just a change of "the platform," paper print has new powerful substitute in digital print. Knowledge won't disappear, the information won't lose its quality, and we are just witnesses of a revolutionary and exiting change in the mediums of communication. This change positively will serve human interaction better than the old media and this is precondition for creation of higher levels of general knowledge. Digital printing and Internet not only preserve the old forms of expression and communication but improve them to make the information more accessible and "interactive."


Internet affected many fields in "knowledge industry," especially encyclopedia's publishing. The majestic rows of heavy volumes with leather covers and golden letters in our bookcases seem ancient and outdated. Internet stole encyclopedia's function of excellent reference book. Once symbol of Enlightenment, composed by the minds of prominent thinkers and the efforts of reputable editorial teams, today's encyclopedias are "victims" of anonymous crowd and "googlebots." Just twenty years ago nobody would believe that one day, in his lifetime, the knowledge will depend on machines, on strange things called "crawlers," and electronic spiders. Nobody even did imagine that public opinion and information will be modeled by a crowd of anonymous people instead of prominent intellectuals and educated editors. Today, the famous Encyclopedists are replaced by infamous, hidden behind their nick names Wikipedians, and it is hard to say who of both deserve more respect. There are a few big names in this revolution, and they are not human names. These are PC, Internet, and Google. In the prophetic books of ancient world there is no clue about these ruling "kings" of modern world.

The fact that machines and anonymous crowds control the information that is accessible to the wide human masses is really scary (according latest data global Internet users on May 31, 2009 are 1,596,270,108). But there are some similarities with other important mediums of human interaction we are already used to. The most popular of them is money. The economics of free market functions, in its ideal form, as Internet functions today. With all its derivations and disharmonies, and vices, and speculations, and shortages, free market and the constant, changeable flow and adjustments of prices and products is very similar to the present unrestrained free growth of information in Internet. Same as the market and its products, behind the computer screens, we see hikes of news, opinions, analyses that follow their own logic out of clear human control. Sometimes we see the main players, the people who create and explain the information, for example New York Times editors and columnists, radio and TV notorieties, prominent bloggers, media and TV channels. We know as well who the biggest players in financial world are. But we never know when the wave will turn. Who of these notorieties will stay and who will leave? We are well aware of the possibility of change. We know that the free market does not depend on decisions of one person, a group or a government, as we know that knowledge and information in Internet does not obey commands of one prominent editor or a group of enlighten sages.

Wikipedia is a great example that Internet is not only an aggregator of "browsed" information, but also an accumulator of well classified by machines and anonymous people knowledge. Aristotle viewed the knowledge as classified information. One of the beautiful discoveries and facts concerning Wikipedia (and World Wide Web) is that the "good," the "light" somehow emerges from the "dark" and the "chaos." "Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad. - writes David Runciman, speaking about Gresham's Law in an review of The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih  - When someone sabotages or messes with an otherwise sound entry, there are plenty of people out there who see it as their job to undo the damage, often within seconds of its happening. It turns out that the people who believe in truth and objectivity are at least as numerous as all the crazies, pranksters and time-wasters, and they are often considerably more tenacious, ruthless and monomaniacal."

There is nothing discouraging in a future driven by anonymous humans and heartless machines. Everything will be OK as long as the freedom is preserved. Knowledge controlled by machines and an anonymous crowd directed by feelings such as fairness, humanity, curiosity and inspiration is better than knowledge made by few for few.Montreal Review

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