The Impermanence of Knowledge

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2004

I love libraries. But I’m kind of worried about their future -- and it just isn’t libraries but the nature of information and knowledge in this wired world.

When I was young I thought of libraries as temples of revealed wisdom. The grownups had learned all these things and had left this wonderful legacy of their knowledge archived in the endless shelves stretching before my little hands. Somewhere in those dusty books was everything I could ever hope to know. It was awesome.

Now I’m older, and I think less wise. Most of the knowledge that I had gained as a youth has turned out to be faulty. For example, I thought I knew about atomic physics. I had a clear picture of electrons like billiard balls circling a bunch of grapes in the nucleus. The world was a simple, explainable place. Knowledge had a permanency. Now I realize that knowledge itself is transitory and often of questionable validity. The billiard ball metaphor in my mind has melted into a fog of uncertainty. Knowledge won’t sit still, and it isn’t just forging new frontiers, but it’s also constantly being rewritten.

Now when I visit libraries I’m suspicious. I love the ambiance and even the smell, but I’m wary about those books. In the fields that I know, I see books that are obsolete and even wrong. Unfortunately, this is most of the books. I think that a librarian should go through and remove those decayed books. Maybe they should put a little sticker on the shelf for a placeholder. “The book that previously occupied this space, (name of book), has been judged to have become useless, wrong, and misleading.”

Some years ago at a talk I gave at the Library of Congress, and I told the people there that they had too many books. Needless to say, this opinion was unwelcome. But the problem is, amidst all the junk, how am I to find the “good stuff.” Moreover, even the “good stuff” has a way of turning sour, and who is to judge what is good anyway?

I saw a good example of this innate knowledge pollution when my company closed its library at my lab. (Something that’s happening all too often these days.) The company announced that as of a certain day the library would be closed permanently, and that on that day all books would be available to be taken. I looked forward to this unique opportunity to get free books.

On the appointed morning I waited in a small crowd as the library door was thrown open for the impending pillage. As I raced in I saw the people who had been in front of me forging their way out with their arms full of books. Quickly, I scanned the shelves. Though there were obvious gaps now, most books still remained. I looked and I looked, but I couldn’t find a single thing worth carrying out. Later in the afternoon I returned. The library was empty of people, but most of the books were still there. No one wanted those lonely volumes. This was a true test of the value of the archive, and, of course, it was a destructive test.

The library has been a venerable social institution. Since the time of the Library of Alexandria in the second century BC, it has been an enduring concept. After all those centuries, it is now being threatened by World Wide Web. Now we have a virtual library at our fingertips with seemingly infinite shelves and a searchable index. However, the books on those shelves are changed every day. Books disappear, new ones appear, and others are revised. The average life of a web page is only six to seven weeks. I think of the books in the physical libraries as analogous to hardware, and those in the virtual library as software. Furthermore, unlike the books in the physical libraries, there is seldom any standard of review. It’s too easy to publish.

I am intrigued by the idea of archiving the web, of being able to go back in time and mine the history of what people were saying in the past. There are several ongoing attempts to do this. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has archived pages from 1996 (charmingly, it has a mirror in Alexandria, Egypt), and the British Library is now archiving pages “of social and historical importance.” There are, of course, problems with copyright and with the preservation of things that, retrospectively, people don’t want to be remembered. Nevertheless, there has to be value somewhere in that vast, accumulating pile of electronic sludge.

I’m bothered by the ephemeral nature of information today. Way down in my stomach I wish that my assimilated knowledge would sit still. Beethoven isn’t rewriting his symphonies every day, and Leonardo isn’t using Photoshop to revise his Mona Lisa. And secretly I still think of electrons as being like little billiard balls.

Robert Lucky