For thousands of years, knowledge was conceived as a top-down approach that eventually filtered to the masses. God told the prophets, priests and clergy then it went down to the congregation. The king told his subjects and they obeyed. Creating systems of authority structures in the process.
Then Guttenberg created the printing press at a time when 97% of Europe was illiterate. All of a sudden, you didn’t have to listen to someone else interpret the scriptures or decrees anymore. You could read them yourselves. Of course, it isn’t just ancient texts. Now someone could print the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo and learn we are not the center of the universe. Or read the works of Semmelweis and why it is important to wash your hands (which would later lay the groundwork of germ theory).
Information is no longer linear. It doesn’t emerge from a single source anymore. Information is now abundant because we have the means to share it. Which has changed many things in our culture today:
- Because information is so abundant and easily accessible, it no longer is as valuable. Think about all the useless facts out there. What is valuable is the time someone takes to collate information in a way that changes people’s minds.
- People’s attitudes towards information have changed because everyone can now find everything. In fact, we have a reverse effect, people often are experiencing cognitive overload and are working to reduce the amount of input. A major shift in the last 500 years. For a long time, information could only travel as fast as a horse can go. You used to starve as you waited weeks to hear what is happening in the world and today it is instant.
- Gatekeepers are no longer near as valuable. If you want to be discovered you can post your ebook online. You don’t need a publisher to get it into people’s hands. Yet, while we still live in a complex world full of many people, we still rely on authority structures to govern us. After all, without police, we would eventually just run every red light and no one would get to work on time. So while there are fewer people telling us what to do, we still can’t live without some kind of agreement of governance.
- The network effect is real. One person using a fax machine is useless until everyone gets on board. Thanks to things like Wikipedia, we can all give to the network and in turn the network gives us back.
Ultimately, we can only attain a small fraction of the knowledge available. What we don’t know far out ways what we do. What is out there waiting to emerge?