Monday, August 17, 2009

The Wisdom Store

It is said that when the Royal Library at Alexandria was burned down, perhaps by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. or by the Bishop Theophilus or Caliph Omar sometime later (depending on which version of events you choose to believe), the progress of human knowledge was delayed by centuries.

The library was the vision of Egypt’s King Ptolemy, who wanted to possess all the literature of the world, encompassing history, astronomy, mathematics and medicine.

Nowadays, the notion of keeping the canon of the planet in one location and in tangible form seems quaint. With our technology, we can access the learning of the ages from almost anyplace.

For example, if you are reading this column anytime after August 2009 or anywhere besides a Canadian city, chances are you are seeing it on some lighted screen, rather than on paper. If a century or more has passed since these words were written and cross-time communication has been mastered, please email to let me know if the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup.

Newspapers have been especially affected by the advent of the electronic age, in terms of relevance and revenue. With the egalitarian influence of the Internet, a respected reporter who has won several Frowning Beaver Awards for Serious Canadian Journalism may have less readership than some crank at a keyboard in his mother’s basement in Chatham, Ontario. And from a business perspective, how can they coax folks to pay for what is freely available?

News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently announced that the company would begin charging for all its online reporting, but this has already been attempted by publications large and small, without success. Many have supposed, therefore, that newspapers as we know them are doomed. What of books, though?

My own book, Finn the half-Great, is juvenile fiction (which is also how some critics describe my newspaper columns). Books of this genre tend to sell moderately over time, rather than in large numbers when first released. As young people become increasingly inclined toward items that are electronic, rather than tactile, and making the massive assumption of at least a modicum of public interest in my tome, will it be more commonly read in print or on displays like Kindle and Sony Reader? While “E-book” sales represent maybe 4 percent of the total market today, convenience is a cousin to exponential growth.

But is our information any safer now than it was at Alexandria? For all environmentalists’ insistence that we rely on windmills and hamster wheels to power our computers and gizmos, are these energy sources reliable? Or suppose some malefactor nation or group succeeds in detonating an Electro-Magnetic Pulse, which could permanently disable all electronic devices and communications over a continent-wide area. What then? How much of our accumulated millennia of learning could we recall and preserve through oral tradition, passing the Talking Stick from generation to generation as we re-build from scratch?

With today’s technology, one can hold Ptolemy’s dream in a device. But information is not knowledge, and wisdom trumps them both. However we express ourselves and catalogue facts in years to come, let’s hope we hold on to timeless truths.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.