Evaluation | ‘Realizing What We Know’ from earlier than writing existed to AI

About midway by his new e-book “Realizing What We Know,” Simon Winchester devotes a number of pages to a British group, based in 1826, referred to as the Society for the Diffusion of Helpful Information. By publishing cheap booklets on a wide range of topics, the group aimed to enlarge the mental horizons of the newly literate working courses of that period. In some ways, Winchester — the genial and far admired writer of books concerning the Oxford English Dictionary, the volcanic explosion of Krakatau, the Yangtze and Mississippi rivers, geological maps, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and a lot else — is likely to be appropriately dubbed the One-Man Society for the Diffusion of Helpful Information of our personal period.

No matter his topic, Winchester leavens deep analysis and the crisp factual writing of a reporter — he was for a few years a international correspondent for the Guardian — with an abundance of curious anecdotes, footnotes and digressions. His prose is all the time clear, however it’s also invigorated with pleasingly elegant diction: Trendy gents is likely to be “grandees” or “swells,” whereas a rustic’s dependent provinces are dubbed “satrapies.” Winchester additionally neatly enriches his sentences with sly literary allusions: The intellects of Chinese language censors, he notes on this new e-book, are “huge and funky and unsympathetic,” which is how H.G. Wells described the minds of Martians.

Above all, Winchester values precision. Whereas many writers could be content material to check with “the Andaman Islands” and cease there, Winchester — educated in geology and the earth sciences at Oxford College — proffers a sharper geographical delineation: “the Andaman Islands, the string of lime-stoned jungle-covered skerries mendacity within the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Burma.” In brief, he’s a pleasure to learn, and even to take heed to, as devotees of his audiobooks can testify.

In “Realizing What We Know,” Winchester surveys “how information has over the ages been created, categorized, organized, saved, dispersed, subtle and disseminated.” The e-book, almost 400 pages alongside covers oral storytelling, the event of writing, the emergence of libraries in antiquity, the invention of paper by Cai Lun in China, the Gutenberg printing press, the heyday of the encyclopedia, the rise of newspapers, radio and tv, the methods of propaganda and public relations and, lastly, the digital and synthetic intelligence revolutions of our personal time.

Do these topics sound acquainted? As a short afterword explains, Winchester labored on the e-book whereas hunkered down in his research in western Massachusetts through the coronavirus pandemic, unable to journey for in situ analysis. Consequently, “Realizing What You Know” is much less unique than his best-selling “The Professor and the Madman” — a few convicted assassin, confined in an insane asylum, who grew to become a serious contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary — or “The Man Who Beloved China,” an enthralling biography of the eccentric Joseph Needham, the biologist turned Sinologist who spearheaded the magisterial multivolume “Science and Civilization in China.”

“Realizing What We Know” is, as a substitute, largely a synthesis of Winchester’s intensive however targeted studying, amplified with occasional quick borrowings from his personal journal articles and earlier writing. Informative and entertaining all through, it’s packed tight together with his ordinary array of hanging factoids: The Rosetta Stone is probably the most visited object within the British Museum, Virginia Woolf reviewed Arthur Waley’s translation of “The Story of Genji” for Vogue Journal, announcers within the early days of BBC radio learn the information in full night costume and — these have been the times! — one concern of the Sunday New York Instances in 1987 clocked in at 1,600 pages and weighed roughly 12 kilos.

A e-book evaluation of ‘The Perfectionists’ from writer Simon Winchester

In a free sense, the primary half of “Realizing What We Know” provides the background historical past to the overriding and extra philosophical query that finally involves the fore within the second half of the e-book: What would be the destiny of humankind in a world the place, more and more, machines do our remembering, pondering and creating for us? Winchester worries “that at this time’s all-too-readily out there stockpile of knowledge will result in a lowered want for the retention of data, a lessening of thoughtfulness, and a consequent discount within the look of knowledge in society.”

Himself a second-string polymathic, Winchester hero worships these individuals who, all through historical past, have aspired to know all the things or who’ve contributed helpful improvements to a number of fields. In Western tradition, Aristotle is the first exemplar of this custom, however “Realizing What You Know” touches on others almost as achieved, together with the scientist Shen Gua in eleventh century China, the multilingual, multitalented Black African James Beale (who later renamed himself Africanus Horton), the saintly mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and Frank Ramsey (each of whom died younger), the discovered classicist Benjamin Jowett, the nineteenth century visionary Charles Babbage, who drew up plans for an “Analytical Engine,” Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Large Internet, and John McCarthy, the founding father of synthetic intelligence.

Whereas the above checklist doesn’t embrace any ladies, largely because of the constraints imposed on them up to now, its vary does underscore the worldwide perspective of the writer. As an illustration, one part of “Realizing What We Know” surveys the assorted nationwide exams given to younger folks, beginning with the Scholastic Aptitude Check (SAT), now more and more disparaged, although seldom for the rationale talked about by Winchester: “Within the eyes of just about each educated nation on this planet, the American SAT is simply ridiculously straightforward.”

Its Chinese language equal, the dreaded Gaokao, “is to the American SAT as Go is to Go Fish.” A 2018 preliminary examination for 11-year-olds within the metropolis of Shungqing tellingly featured this query: “A ship carries 26 sheep and 10 goats: How outdated is the captain?” One baby not solely calculated that the livestock weighed a minimum of 7,7000 kilograms however knew that piloting a ship carrying greater than 5,000 kilograms of cargo required its captain to have had a license for 5 years. One may solely apply for such a license on the age of 23. Ergo, the boat captain should be a minimum of 28 years outdated.

Learn extra e-book opinions by Michael Dirda at The Washington Publish

Consider all of the totally different sorts of data that baby delivered to bear on this seemingly insoluble drawback. As a result of computer systems can now reply our questions at a keystroke, they can not assist however encourage laziness and mental atrophy: As gymnasium rats say about placing on muscle, “No ache, no achieve.” Prompt entry to digitized data generally is a helpful adjunct to our each day lives, however it’s nonetheless no match for the deeply human pleasure of buying competency, in studying learn how to do a troublesome factor nicely all by oneself. Don’t we most admire these individuals who can carry out intricate duties, whether or not bodily or psychological, with confidence, grace and pizazz? As one Chinese language lady proclaimed, studying was value any quantity of arduous work “as a result of she now had the information.”

Winchester ends “Realizing What We Know” with the considerably determined hypothesis — earlier enunciated by Sherlock Holmes in “A Examine in Scarlet” — that our minds can solely retain a lot data. By permitting computer systems to perform as our mind attics, we’d achieve the psychological area and leisure “to suppose, ponder, ruminate, contemplate, assess, surprise, ponder, think about, dream” and thus turn into extra “considerate, thoughtful, affected person” and “sensible.”

Isn’t fairly to assume so? But I believe that individuals are too gloriously messy, too human, for this form of austere, Utopian future, whether or not imagined by Plato, Wells or Winchester. The truth is, all that high-minded pondering sounds extra like how some cold and really good laptop would possibly fortunately spend the livelong day.

From Historic Knowledge to Fashionable Magic

By Simon Winchester. Harper. 432 pp. $35.

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