Knowledge, Control, Switches

It is forty years since the publication of Michael F D Young’s Knowledge and Control. This week I was reminded of this influential publication by a book on information management, a discussion about a Master Switch and a post from the Scholarly Kitchen. All three items raise important issues about knowledge and who controls access to it.

Ann Blair has written a detailed account of managing scholarly information before the Modern Age in Too Much To Know.

In her introduction Ann observes that:

We describe ourselves as living in an information age as if this were something completely new. In fact, many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries.

Ann explores the development reference books as an example of information management. Anthony Grafton says of Too Much To Know :

There has always been ‘too much to know.’ In this lively and learned book, Ann Blair shows us how early modern Europeans managed to survive—and even to surf—what they saw as tidal waves of information. Her insightful comparisons, careful attention to the survival of traditional methods, and clear vision of the new culture of passionate curiosity that took place in the Renaissance give her work extraordinary range and depth.

The Guardian Weekly carried a news item this week about China’s Firewall. The article followed up a US announcement about funds to support Internet access. Fang Binxing’s comments about the robustness of China’s Firewall took me back to Tim Wu’s discussions in Master Switch about how “information industries rise, consolidate, monopolize, capture governments, force out competitors, and, eventually, fragment into something less grandiose, less perfect, but more vibrant, open, and innovative.”

Meanwhile Kent Anderson in a blog post in The Scholarly Kitchen was exploring the debate over “whether the Internet is making us smarter and more capable or turning us into shallow and superficial information parasites.” Kent argues that “throughout history, this fear of losing control has been consistently masked as concerns for higher, even altruistic interests.” He concludes that:

We may argue again and again whether the Internet is changing our brains, elevating us, lowering us, making us smarter, or making us stupid. But at the end of the day, it seems the real argument is about control — who has it, who shares it, and who wants it.

So, despite all the partisans, sophistry, and essays about our brains, our culture, our souls, it’s important to remember that what we’re really arguing about is control.

I thought Ann, Tim and Kent were a great rejoinder to ideas prompted by Michael Young all those years ago and exemplifications of the contest for control.

Photo Credit

A mobile library providing books to rural areas 1947

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