Human Knowledge Retention and Growth

By Jim Ghadbane, CTO, CANARIE Inc.

Other than the really smart (and obnoxious) guy, Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who seems to know everything, no single human can make a car. By that I mean no single human knows how to make steel from rock, how to make glass from silica, how to make rubber, nylon, cloth, semiconductors, anti-freeze, on, on, and on.

Yet the annual estimated worldwide production of cars by humanity is over 20 million – approximately 145,000 per calendar day!

Cars mass-produced 100 years ago don’t have the look, performance, or safety of the modern automobile.  Like current cars, the early cars were built on knowledge and discovery by humans who are sadly long gone.  Yet the critical information of their discoveries has been retained by humanity. Retaining past human knowledge is crucial for new discovery.

The first major leap in knowledge retention came with writing. Reading is akin to the original author imparting their knowledge directly to us. Before reading and writing, knowledge was retained with spoken mnemonics – e.g., 30 days hath September, April, June and November…  Try using that technique to pass on to your child how to make a Ferrari from scratch!

The next major break-through in knowledge retention was the printing press. Books are written by an author, or co-authored by a small set of people, yet have the ability to reach everyone – one to many. The increased volume of books, enabled by the printing press, made it possible for the unprecedented outreach of knowledge: libraries became local, literacy rates soared – the collective human knowledge grew dramatically. Its rate of growth increased as more humans were enabled to build on past knowledge.

Unprecedented Growth

We are currently experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth in information creation. That growth will fuel knowledge growth in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. The enabler for that growth is the Internet. For us techies, the Internet is the hardware – routers, DSL, fibre, radio towers, etc. that make up the systems which make the physical networks.  For everyone else, the Internet is online computing, storage, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo, MSN, Twitter etc. It’s this second part where all the action is, the first part is just the plumbing to get to it.

Unlike the first two revolutionary steps towards knowledge retention, the Internet allows us all to learn from the past, and to make a contribution to the collective knowledge of humanity. It enables any to any, many to many or any other ad-hoc form of information dissemination and collaboration. It also enables knowledge outreach to our desktop or to the palms of our hands – gone are the days of hoping that someone else hasn’t already checked-out the book you need – it’s already in your hand!

Will pigs fly?

Where will it lead?

Where will it lead us when all of humanity has access to our accumulated knowledge? Over time we will collectively answer that question; and the answer is almost guaranteed to surprise us. The surprise will come, in part, as a result of the wide diversity of values in the cultures which make up humanity.  When the collective world knowledge is accessible to all societies, the outcomes will be highly unpredictable.

This is not to suggest that we should fear the possible outcomes of shared collective knowledge. However, we must be prepared to live in a world where knowledge is exploited in ways we have little ability to predict or control. For example, DNA generation could be used to actually make pigs that can fly (so much for that adynaton!), just as it could be used to make trees that glow in the dark to deal with energy shortage.

Doing our Part

We at CANARIE are doing our part to ensure Canadians aren’t left behind in the most significant growth of human knowledge and knowledge retention ever. Continuing to adapt and grow the digital infrastructure is essential to keeping Canadians competitive in the knowledge economy.

Now let’s all figure out how to make traffic go away – or cars that can fly!