21 April, 2005


One of my favorite subversive notions is the idea that knowledge gets lost.

An important myth in our society is that scientific progress, like entropy, defines the arrow of time. Without a doubt, we are learning more every day; our understanding of the world is greater, and better, than at any moment in the past. Thus, we have nothing to learn from history, no call to preserve ancient knowledge. On the contrary, we have an imperative to eradicate that inferior corpus and replace it with the more modern understanding of the world.

As a literate society we find it hard to imagine that knowledge could actually disappear. After all, everything we learn is recorded in such incredible detail that posterity will surely retain it. But recorded knowledge and functional knowledge are two separate things, as anyone who has struggled with a textbook can attest to. I've heard it said that if we wanted to go to the moon today, it would be impossible. Not because we lack the capacity; but we do lack the skills and the people with the necessary accumulated knowledge. Maintaining a body of people equipped with a specific expertise requires an active effort. In the absence of expediency, we let those skills atrophy; we let it decay. What would have been basic knowledge in the past - how to lead a horse, how to sow squash seeds - is forgotten now, because it became unimportant.

This need not always be the case. For example, in India knowledge of how to construct aquifers has largely vanished, thanks to the introduction of centralized irrigation systems. The enormous efficiency of a mechanized irrigation system means that the old (ancient) system of constructing dew collectors, wells, and so on, became outmoded. Obsolete. So naturally, with time, the knowledge of their value and their construction eroded away.

Now, in the era of water scarcity, the modern irrigation system is suddenly failing. Water tables are dropping, and ancient aquifers are almost completely drained of their accumulated treasure.* Here, those older techniques might be usefully resurrected. But that knowledge has vanished. It must now be rebuilt through active effort, relearned by the new generation.

This is a rather sad idea, but I find it compelling, and exciting, because it demands that we do NOT forget the past, that we reject the notion that newer is necessarily better, and that the way things will be done is an improvement on the way they were.

* The same is an issue in the U.S., where agriculture draws heavily on underground aquifers without replacement. Eventually these supplies will be depleted, prompting a crisis. But, honestly, I don't really care as much about the cattle industry as I do about Indian villagers.

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