Monday, 17 September 2012

The apple on the tree

The biblical apple tree has become an orchid. The serpents are retreating before the onslaught of callous feet. Never before has knowledge been so accessible, or held so much promise.

Once upon a time there was a rather devious snake and an apple. Oh, yes. There were also a couple of nude people. The rest is history, or parable, depending on your take on things. In case you were asleep when the story was explained to you, or your head was somewhere else, the moral of the story is that it is bad to know anything that your religion or church doesn’t want you to know.

Most religions demand unquestioning obedience to their doctrines, not to beliefs, understanding or even, in the final analysis, to your own faith and experience. Yet my understanding is that if we are made in God’s image, then surely traits such as curiosity and the drive to learn must be divine. And anyway, why is that tree so very fertile? History is littered with juicy apples hanging just within reach.

Symbols representing sounds, words and concepts were just the thing to help us remember all that stuff we forgot we said a couple of hours, days, weeks or even months ago.

Paper was an insanely brilliant invention. Humanity could do away with unwieldy stone tablets. All of a sudden knowledge became portable, even if you didn’t have a cart and a bunch of strong oxen to deliver your memo.

Then there was movable type. At last you could possess a book of your very own.

And still the apples kept on growing and people kept on flocking to the tree.

All of a sudden, books were written in languages other than Latin. As people picked up on the new-fangled craze, more and more people started reading, yet more books were printed, and after a while, so many books were printed that books were actually affordable.

Then they invented cheap pine book shelves that you could screw together at home. That, for me, was a highlight in the progress of civilization.

The computer was one of the juicier apples on the tree of knowledge. It could help you think and remember. Most importantly, it led to the Internet. I am not sure if the guys from the US Department of Defense had any idea what they were doing when they opened the Internet to the public, but it was quantum leap forward in terms of access to knowledge. At the very least, hundreds of millions now have the knowledge to find porn sites.

Over the last few years, another apple sprouted on the tree and was picked. As apples go, this was the humdinger, a piece of fruit so large, it makes New York look like one of those funny little pie apples. Yet nobody paid it much attention.

A group of people got together and set up an encyclopaedia on the web. It is called Wikipedia. What makes Wikipedia different is the fact that everyone with access to the web can contribute their knowledge and add to articles.

The process of correction and verification works through a peer review system. If someone believes that something is wrong, he or she will correct it. This may seem like a recipe for complete disaster, yet a recent study showed that the science articles were as accurate as those of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I am not entirely absolutely sure where all this leads, but Wikipedia has one massive implication, and that is that knowledge is no longer the exclusive province of academics, certainly as far as Wikipedia and the millions who refer to it are concerned.

So how can Wikipedia be trusted? Even though it admits to the possibility of inaccuracy and vandalism, and by default, by people who still maintain that the earth is flat, it gives advice on verification of information, and how to spot knowledge that should be questioned.

Certain forms of knowledge, certain fields, will be more popular than others, but the pool of information will grow to become very encompassing. And there are fields of knowledge that most encyclopaedias would not as a rule touch, for instance a biography of Indiana Jones.

If anything, Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia made with passion. The biblical apple tree has become an orchid. The serpents are retreating before the onslaught of callous feet. Never before has knowledge been so accessible, or held so much promise.

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