Knowing What We Know:The Transmission of Knowledge From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic

Date Reviewed
September 17th 2023

“Knowing What We Know:The Transmission of Knowledge From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic” is a particularly ambitious work both for this professional writer, Simon Winchester, as it would be for any other author.

For me this history of knowledge from creation, through transmission to storage was a particularly compelling read. His background in Asian studies lends a surprising east-west balance in his account. The history, presented in a compelling and readable way, is the basis from which the author approaches his essential concern and question.

And that is what effect the ease of access and transmission of most knowledge made possible in the last three or four decades will effect human civilization going forward.

For most of the 5,000-plus years of civilization, technology was about facilitating, enhancing and easing physical exertion. Most easily rendered as labour saving devices.

But now technology, through computerization and the internet has made a huge jump into saving and relieving people from mental efforts.

He sums up this quandary right at the end of the book asking two profound questions. Will “all these wondrous machines that, in one way or another, now allow us to avoid overworking our brains, somehow diminish our capacity for thought, in much the same way that underused muscles will tend to atrophy, and stop working in the absence of need.”

And the other, providing intellectual balance, somewhat surprised me given the tenor of the book “What if the mind does not work at all like a muscle? What if not having to tax our minds with such tedious matters as arithmetic and geography and spelling and memorizing so many facts actually free parts of the mind? What if mental leisure gives it the time and space to suppose, ponder,   ruminate, consider, assess, wonder, contemplate, imagine, dream? What if removing the storm and stress of daily mental need, lowering the mind’s noise-to-signal ratio, instead clear the mind and allow it, now less clouded, taxed and troubled to seek out the potential it always had?”

While Winchester allows this latter fulsome question, the book does not suggest he subscribes to it.

Early on he introduces us to a word that crops up throughout and completely in his sixth, and last chapter, which is devoted to it, the “polymath”.

For those who may not have encountered the term, it refers to somebody, invariably highly intelligent, but differentiated by a huge range of interests of which he/she has a vast knowledge in many. By no means extensive, examples from western civilization could include Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Bertrand Russel.

From China, Kung Fu Tse (Confucius) and Sung dynasty philosopher, Shen Gua fit the definition..

So much knowledge, coupled with need to specialize, may make such ‘know-it-alls’ impossible going forward. The author, asks the question, but seems to suggest it will be a loss. Perhaps he regards them as civilizational heroes.

Sally Adee in her book 'We Are Electric' says modern polymaths are needed to bring cohesion to different perspectives within a field, where the tunnel knowledge of specialization creates barriers and insularities.

But while Winchester leads up to these concerns, he presents an interesting history of knowledge often crediting ideas to people that other historians have been ignorant of, ignored or dismissed. So there are lots of little revelations.

Early in the transmission of knowledge segment, he contrasts the historically rigorous examination of students in China with the laughably simple  challenges given to American students, such as SATs. One is invited to wonder whether all that Chinese effort will continue to be relevant going forward.

He has segments on the rise of libraries as a way of storing knowledge.

What seems to have been saved in the world's first library, is in  cuneiform on clay tablets and mundane in content. It was in Mesopotamia, more specifically the civilization of Nineveh about 1,500 B.C. near the present day city of Mosul in Iraq.

But the grandest of the ancients was the library in Cairo during the latter Athenian period. Although past cuneiform, its media was in the form of copied scrolls on papyrus and vellum (animal skin). The author briefly discusses the invention of paper, most likely in China. Wood block printing came along in the first few hundred years AD, also likely in China, with one of the great extant collections, from the 13th century,  now in a Korean monastery.

Winchester moves forward with the invention of moveable metal type, credited by Europeans and the West to Gutenberg in Germany, but at least as likely to have started in the far east in Korea or China slightly earlier.

Sixteenth century English philosopher Francis Bacon once claimed the greatest technological achievements were printing, gunpowder and the compass, believing all were European, when in fact none were, says Winchester.

The author also has large segments on the part played by museums in storing knowledge. The first ever may have been in Babylon, Iraq.

He also portrays the initiations and growth of the encyclopaedia as a source for knowledge and follows that right up to and including Wikipedia and internet search.

The author effectively uses one of his own experiences to illustrate where a whole group of refined skills, requiring intelligence and knowledge are suddenly made unnecessary.

He is on a small boat in the western Indian Ocean travelling south along the coast of Africa toward South Africa, with a small crew, in the 1980s. “Ruth” a skilled boat navigator uses several hallowed mechanical instruments evolved over thousands of years to determine, speed, direction and position of the boat in open water. It seems to be an analog procedure that gets approximate enough results for the task. Then all are made irrelevant by the precision of the global positioning system (GPS) within a few years. Now someone with only a cell phone can get the job done with digital precision and using limited knowledge, and nowhere near the smarts of Ruth. “Up until this point sailors had been required to think their way across the sea. Soon there would be an instrument that, at a stroke, would do all the thinking for them.” “Huge swaths of human thought have been snatched away, and vast areas of responsibility have been delegated to electronics.” GPS is now the only global utility free to anybody.

While the service is far better and easier, what about the void in smarts needed?

Then there is the south seas islander whose people's marine skills are far more attuned to nature and subtler than the mechanical instruments. Technologies are coming and being supplanted at ever increasing rates. Telegraph less than

a century, telex and pagers for a couple of decades and a fax machine for less (physicians excepted). However, cultural values and practices and oral traditions centuries old may continue to be practiced.

The author suggests that commerce and greed may have motivated the rapid evolution of technology.

Now at the same time, reliance on such a comprehensive tool as the cell phone, can leave a person helpless with the sudden absence of it. Needing to make a phone call, a phone can be found but numbers, even the most important, have not been committed to memory, but the phone relied on to present them when called upon. Further one's location is also known through the phone with reliance on simple geographical knowledge having been abandoned. Maybe you have a car, but your phone is needed to open it.

The breadth and depth of the author's research into the areas germane to building his case is impressive.

He often uses some ornate and humorous turns of phrase that invite savouring and sometimes scurrying for a dictionary...or most likely google.




“An existential crisis looms: If machines will acquire all our knowledge for us and do our thinking for us, then what, pray, is the need for us to be?

The author has a chapter on transmission of knowledge and this is primarily to children. Children seem most curious and receptive to knowledge between five and 12. There is a kind of languor demanding more compelling teaching for teenagers.

And an interesting perspective “travel is a child of curiosity, and even when a journey is taken for reasons other than exploration, a curious mind will inevitably be diverted by an irresistible need to acquire knowledge en route.”

The invention of writing about 3400 B.C. provided a method of preserving information exactly and concretely as opposed to words passed down through memory.

The first writing material were soft clay tablets and they have been found in Iraq, Egypt, China and southern Mexico. The oldest seeming to be from Iraq.

He mentions the math from Mesopotamia using the highly divisible base 60, which is represented in 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour and in longitude and latitude.

The earliest “schoolhouse” seems to also have been in Iraq. The modern day Iraqi city of Nasiriya may be the site in the second millennium B.C.. However, a case can be made for the Xia dynasty China about the same time.

However, for many centuries the Chinese schools taught myth, legend and belief in the model presented by Confucius. But the humiliation at the hands of western powers at the end of the 19th century prompted an educational reform.

It was the end of an education regime that had been in place to select bureaucrats for more than 1,000 years.

The system now in place “exerts ferocious and brutal demands on an increasingly clever and well-educated cohort”. The goal is to score high enough on the final exam to get into the best universities. The score, and not family influence, is what is needed and much of life's opportunities result from this.

And revisiting libraries, the author talks about the vulnerability of libraries to intolerance in society. The oldest library on record discovered in Mosul was moved to the British Museum. One that might be seen as its lineal descendant, the university library in Mosul was burned with its one million books by militant jihadists in 2016.

Over the centuries such acts were perpetrated by invaders seeing cultural destruction a necessary strategy. Adolf Hitler followed this pattern destroying libraries in occupied countries. The book burning and killing of intellectuals in the 3rd century Chines Chin dynasty stands out in history.

The library in Alexandria, Egypt was regarded as “a wonder of the ancient world”. It was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. Scrolls not books, which hadn't been invented, were displayed for visitors to read. It survived a few centuries, but declined with changing attitudes toward learning and scholarship and eventually burned. The Greeks had built libraries in many major cities.

Something resembling a book, the 'codex', was invented by Romans and supplanted the scroll which largely disappeared by 600 A.D. Papyrus gave way to parchment and vellum, before paper supplanted them.

The modern library arose with the explosion in printing and books after 1550.

The oldest continuously working library, since about 550 AD, is in a monastery in the Sinai desert in Egypt.

The author relates an anecdote where he wanted a book from the London library which had been out on loan for about 30 years, on the generous borrowing rules of the institution. He spends time amusingly describing the loose system of categorization of books and the vast storage of encyclopaedia. The library secured the book when it sent a notification that somebody needed. it.

In his description of encyclopaedia he describes the 1911 29-volume edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica as the best ever printed and it was the standard until 1979.

Another great standard was the ten-thousand volumes of the Chinese Gujin Tushu Jicheng which may have been started in 1725. But rather than just facts, it has myths and legends and is very focussed on China, but still “the gold standard for effort and dedication”. There are editions in Cambridge and Columbia universities where it is still used.

A precursor to the encyclopaedia, the Suda, was hand written in the 10th century in Greek. The first true encyclopaedia was produced in 'German in 1630. The author devotes a lot of space to the encyclopaedia of Denis Diderot which was a major tool to secularize knowledge in the 18th century and shook the intellectual world of Europe.

Britannica's last printing after 244 years was in March 2012. Wikipedia (2001) was taking over.

The written encyclopaedia cannot survive in the age of internet with its rapid and comprehensive presentation of information.

Like many other firsts, the first museum was Babylonian (Iraq). Now there are about 60,000 worldwide with the building frenzy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the origin of many of the great ones.

The current value system cites a lot of the abuses that went into securing artefacts, especially for European museums, spawned under colonialism. But on the positive side this practice may have preserved many of the relics and led to scholarship that explained many of the artefacts. However, there is growing pressure to return them to the countries of origin.

In one interesting museum story, the author describes what led to one of the world's great museums, that of Chinese relics in Taiwan.

The Chinese had not really had museums. With the end of the last Chinese dynasty in the early 20th century and looming turmoil with Japanese entry, the Chinese civil war and the long march, the curator of the new museum carefully packed everything into nearly 20,000 catalogued containers in 1933. He ordered these treasures put on five trains to Shanghai and thence onto other sanctuaries. Theft and pilfering ate away at the treasure. It came to be described as Chinese culture and “where it resided was China”.

It was sheltered from the turmoil and eventually 700,000 items (most still in storage in pre-war wrapping) were moved to Taiwan and form the great museum in the city of Taipei. Of course, with its location, it now has political/geopolitical consequence under the label “China is her treasures”. It is “China's cultural birthright” here and “must come home”. This is an idea barely noticed or appreciated in the West vis a vis the Taiwan question.

Winchester explores what is “universally hailed as a great inflection point in modern history” on December 9, 1968. It was the recognition and move from paper to electronics in storing and manipulating information (electronic computers). This really took off with the “world wide web” with its storage and transmission of knowledge in 1990.

In a world of commerce, Wikipedia with its no profit and constant editing and embellishing (done free) stands alone. It is said that the “no profit” prompted many experts to offer their contributions freely making it a constantly edited world resource.

While papyrus was probably invented in Egypt, paper was almost certainly invented by Cai Lun, who watched wasps, in China in the first century AD, and improved and perfected in Japan.

In China and Japan the printing was used for sacred or regulatory items with presses often in temples and monasteries. Despite metal type, the wood blocks were better suited to the ideographic writing with characters instead of alphabet.

Wood block printing was invented in China in the 9th century, initially for Buddhist texts. Shortly after bronze type was used in Korea. Banknotes were printed in China about 1380.

In Europe, printed money came in the 1660s in Sweden.

The author provides details on the system and style of printing of the Gutenberg bible, which was preordered and presold in a business, not liturgical sentiment. While the church was popular in Germany at that time, the bible was not. The bible was chosen as the most viable commercial venture. Of the 180 copies, 135 were on paper and 45 on vellum. The water marked paper was made in Italy using a linen cloth paper. Of the total, 49 still remain. If one were to be sold now it is estimated it would go for $35 million with a single of its 1286 pages fetching $150,000.

Few technological advances caught on a fast as printing did. It played an important role in the Protestant Reformation. Conservatives were concerned that informing people could lead to progress and ultimately political reform. It also created and gave impetus to various educational initiatives and newspapers. 'The Times' in the late 18th century became the most prominent in Britain.

In the U.S. it was, and still is, 'The New York Times' that stands above the rest. It has been able to focus on true accurate reporting and still stay in business. Many others attempting this level of integrity have gone out of business.

The core business of a newspaper is the collection and diffusion of knowledge speedily and accurately. Immense additional journalistic powers came with the camera, the radio and television.

Radio was derived from print and television from radio.

The author gives quite a bit of space to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as an example of public television. It was started with the sense of being careful in what to show and showing it accurately. It had a high ethical standard by the mores of the times. It also utilized programming with ideas of the intellectual giants of Britain. The other public broadcaster he compares to it is Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) the Japanese equivalent which followed the same scrupulous pattern.

Both have continued to be the integrity standards in the field.

The author contrasts this with the wild west of radio in the U.S. as “high decibel hucksterism and vulgarity”.

The BBC radio was paid for through the Post Office by anyone who owned a radio.

While there have been threats to defund it even “the most robust philistine government tends to back off” and leave the BBC alone.

The author paraphrases a Guardian writer “unlike Google and Amazon....the BBC brings us ideas of which we have not yet dreamed, in a space free of hectoring voices of those who would sell us goods”.

Winchester says there are suggestible people prone to believe the outrageous and untrue and not just the tabloids may cater to this.

Sometimes governments manipulate the news to eliminate “history” or redirect people's think. The Chinese did it with the Tiananmen Square massacre. It remains a crime to mention it, even though it was widely filmed. The U.S. has also used such practices. It did by telling citizens that Iraqis were killing Kuwaiti babies to drum up support for the 1990 Gulf War. The 2003 invasion may have had comparable misrepresentation of chemical weapons.

The author points to comparable misrepresentation through propaganda in other wars. Lying about the evilness of the enemy can be crucial in winning. He says that while Germany lost the first world war, it may have been because its “propaganda machine was so inept”. “The invention of utterly spurious atrocities became a minor British industry” that fanned public hatred.

And Winchester says “advertising and propaganda have much in common, insofar as both callings selectively doctor (and sometimes euthanize) the truth”.

He cites a couple of dramatic examples in the U.S. one involved an early 20th century physician saying that bacon and eggs was an energy boost needed in the morning and it became the go-to breakfast. In another case women were persuaded to smoke (in public) as a way of asserting themselves (torches of freedom). Both were contrary to good health practices.

Winchester points out that teachings based on religion are about faith, not verifiable fact. And “some people would always rather believe than know, as belief gives solace, comfort, and assurance to millions.”

An interesting revelation to me was the origin of nautical speed. Apparently a rope with knots at regular intervals and piece of wood on the end was dropped in the water. As the water passed it pulled the rope out and the number of knots passing the seaman's hand in a given time was used to calculate the speed.

One of the earliest of mental labour saving devices was the electronic calculator. Now few people, especially young, know how to do long division. There was the abacus that increased speed of calculation, but skill and finger speed was needed.

While the modern computer has been around barely 50 years, its first ancestors were designed in the early 19th century by Charles Babbage, although not proven for more than 100 years. That is discounting a uniquely complex device believed made by Romans 2,000 ago.

The author goes into some detail about Jerry Merryman of Texas Instruments and the invention of the electronic calculator.

Many services on paper such as newspapers, maps and atlases are disappearing as electronics takes them over. Can books be far behind?

And a taxi driver's knowledge is made obsolete by GPS.

Brains are barely necessary for scores of tasks and driving a vehicle will soon wane.

He maintains that geography and mathematics, for the ordinary person, are being forced into retirement.

With knowledge, at least facts, so readily accessible will there be a need to retain the knowledge of anything? It is no longer necessary to remember phone numbers. What knowledge will remain important to remember? Skills maybe because “how to information” does not include the practice and experience that leads to mastery. Knowing something doesn't guarantee the ability to use it. So what is the value of knowledge as it becomes more easily attainable?

And another factor the author indicates is “digital amnesia”...the almost instantaneous forgetting of something looked up on line.

And now the 'Siri effect' is supplanting even looking up and reading.

And knowledge learned through the internet is not as thorough or deep as that from traditional sources, but the consolation is it can be gotten again quickly.

“Artificial intelligence is a reality with possibilities that have accelerated exponentially in tandem with nanoscale transistor's ever increasing speeds, capacities, and processing powers.” And this doesn't even consider quantum computing.

And while we have only recently become aware of it, says Winchester, the academic foundation of AI research was laid down in an 8-week workshop at Dartmouth College in 1956 organized by mathematician John McCarthy. The contention being that every aspect of intelligence, in principle, could be described such that a machine could simulate it. Mathematician Alan Turing suggested this a few years earlier.

The culminating fear is that there will come a fully sentient computer whose concerns are not ours.

  • The last chapter of the book could stand alone, “The First and Wisest of Them All” is essentially a series of several biographies many of “polymaths” but some of other more focused genius. The time span is more than two thousand years. Some are readily recognizable for their fame but you can discover others more obscure, but not necessarily less compelling. Lurking in this chapter is the author's question whether such people will have a role going forward. During this chapter the author muses whether it is possible to learn wisdom and could it be taught. One could enjoy reading this chapter alone or at anytime during the book.