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Simon Winchester — How We Transfer Knowledge Through Time

Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic (book cover)

Shermer and Winchester discuss:

  • how to become a professional writer
  • ChatGPT, GPT-4, and AI
  • knowledge as justified true belief
  • What is truth?
  • Are we living in a post-truth world of fake news, alternative facts, postmodernism and relativism?
  • education, past and present
  • books and the printing press
  • the history and future of encyclopedias
  • museums: should they repatriate objects taken during colonialism (e.g., the Elgin Marbles)?
  • photography
  • print journalism
  • broadcast journalism
  • search engines and knowledge dispersal
  • internet and knowledge.

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Perfectionists, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, and Krakatoa, most of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts. His new book is Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic.

About the Book

From the creation of the first encyclopedia to Wikipedia, from ancient museums to modern kindergarten classes — this is award winning writer Simon Winchester’s brilliant and all-encompassing look at how humans acquire, retain, and pass on information and data, and how technology continues to change our lives and our minds.

With the advent of the internet, any topic we want to know about is instantly available with the touch of a smartphone button. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, what is there left for our brains to do? At a time when we seem to be stripping all value from the idea of knowing things — no need for math, no need for map-reading, no need for memorization — are we risking our ability to think? As we empty our minds, will we one day be incapable of thoughtfulness?

Addressing these questions, Simon Winchester explores how humans have attained, stored, and disseminated knowledge. Examining such disciplines as education, journalism, encyclopedia creation, museum curation, photography, and broadcasting, he looks at a whole range of knowledge diffusion — from the cuneiform writings of Babylon to the machine-made genius of artificial intelligence, by way of Gutenberg, Google, and Wikipedia to the huge Victorian assemblage of the Mundanaeum, the collection of everything ever known, currently stored in a damp basement in northern Belgium.

Studded with strange and fascinating details, Knowing What We Know is a deep dive into learning and the human mind. Throughout this fascinating tour, Winchester forces us to ponder what rational humans are becoming. What good is all this knowledge if it leads to lack of thought? What is information without wisdom? Does Rene Descartes’s Cogito, ergo sum — “I think therefore I am,” the foundation for human knowledge widely accepted since the Enlightenment — still hold?

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This episode was released on May 27, 2023.

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