In the shadowy days of pre history, Shaman and Medicine Men were the original gatekeepers to knowledge, although of a spurious kind. As Frazer tells us in his classic work The Golden Bough, Magic was an early, mistaken, attempt to discover how the world worked. Superstition abounded and what actual knowledge there was could only be transmitted orally, from one generation to the next. Human Culture was carried around in the memory of one or two living generations.
The invention of writing, probably around 5,000 years ago, freed knowledge from the limits of human memory. When this happened, Civilization began to develop in earnest. In the days before Gutenberg, scribes and copyists wielded great power. Accurately conveying declarations from rulers or copying holy texts verbatim was the job of the priestly class. They preserved their power by using giant, unwieldy alphabets of pictograms consisting of thousands of characters. Eventually the phonogram, which represents sounds as opposed to things, simplified writing and made it more versatile, accessible and useful. This was as great a leap forward as the discovery of the number Zero or the invention the Wheel.
Knowledge was treated like treasure by the kings and conquerors of the ancient world. They fought over it, captured it and hoarded it. When Xerxes burned Athens, he spared Aristotle’s collection of scrolls and had them sent home to Persia. Likewise, the ancient Assyrians destroyed Babylon and packed up their clay tablets to send back to their capital city. Alexander the Great was as voracious in his appetite for knowledge as he was for everything else. His library in Egypt was called the “memory of the world” until it burned in 49 BCE.
After the invention of printing press in the 15th Century, authors supplanted scribes as the main drivers of collective knowledge. Observation replaced authority as the standard of scholarship. “Renaissance Men” like DaVinci, Goethe, Jefferson and Franklin engaged mightily with the world round them and published their observations. Sometimes they added to the conventional wisdom, sometimes they overturned it and sent thought off in entirely new directions. In these heady times, the concept of Progress replaced the old static, hierarchal view of existence in the popular mind.
As the Renaissance reached maturity and it’s vast treasure of empirical advances spread out across the population, the potential effect of any one individual intellect grew less. The specialized knowledge of the expert within an organzation replaced the holistic excellence of the Renaissance Man as the ideal. The rapidly increasing specialization of knowledge, economic industrialization and the secularization of society gave rise to Modernity.
During the 20th century the triple disasters of two World Wars and the global Communist Revolution threw into doubt ideas like the inevitability of progress, the veracity of human intelligence and even the possibility of knowledge itself. Post-modernist skepticism combined with cultural anxiety over Technology to produce the widespread anxiety about Artificial Intelligence that we see today.
So, to answer the question posed by the title of this brief essay, “Is knowledge still power,” my answer is “yes”, although not in the same way it used to be. Originally knowledge was power because it gave advantages to those who had it over those who didn’t. In this scenario, access to knowledge was the fundamental factor. Today, with knowledge freely available, mere access no longer provides much advantage. Now, with all of human culture at his, (and everyone else’s) fingertips, a man must become his own advantage. Knowledge is no longer as much like a hoard of treasure as it is an ocean; not something possessed as much as navigated. In my next issue, I’ll reveal some powerful methods for doing this and to thrive in this new era.