Monday, August 17, 2009

What Do You Know?

Every child has a natural curiosity about the world around him, and WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Sets out to answer questions about some of the most interesting aspects of our planet, including man and the way he has shaped his environment.
  • How Long do tortoises live?
  • Why is Botany Bay so called?
  • How hot is the sun?
  • Which pirate was also an explorer?
  • What is VTOL?
  • Who wrote ‘The Star-spangled Banner’?
Stimulating questions such as these, taken from a wide range of subjects in the fields of science and the arts are collected here in one magnificently illustrated volume for children. […] Whether they read it through or dip into it at random, children will find WHAT DO YOU KNOW? An informative and entertaining introduction to the world of knowledge.

Thus the book jacket of What Do You Know?, a Hamlyn number from 1973 aimed at the boys of Empire. Said boys, it is assumed, would be interested in exploration, geography, science, history - especially the military kind. This knowledge would be presented in easily digested nuggets, simple, concise and uncomplicated, aligned to precise vectors of historical teleology and technoscientific progress: we have conquered the world; we shall conquer the infinitely vast expanses of space as well as the infinitely small world of particles and corpuscles. The information is selected so as to present as little risk as possible of exposing children to uncomfortable facts, especially in the historical section. No mention is made of genocide and other unpleasant aspects of colonialism on the part of Anglo-Saxon peoples (a passing mention of the crimes of Spanish conquistadors, however); nor of major wars, both civil and otherwise; nor of exploitation, slavery, endemic poverty and disease.

The past is a time of conquest and exploration, and the occasional ancient wonder. The future is more conquest and exploration, this time on an intergalactic scale. The present is the wonderfully apolitical worlds of nature and invention. And the questions sampled above in the publisher's own blurb are what passes for 'stimulating'.

What is a pygmy?
Pygmies are a race of unusually short human beings who live in parts of Africa and Asia... A pygmy man who reached a height of 4 feet 11 inches would consider himself very tall indeed...
Whenever I stumble upon one of these books, I am surprised to discover that they aren’t actually older: this one surely would have been outdated in its crude approach to the world of knowledge by the time it came out? Then I cast my mind back to the kind of books that were around when I was a lad - bearing in mind I learned to read some time in late 1974 - and I recall that my friends and I had this ideal of absolute knowledge, and it was based on the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook beloved to Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. In the Disney comics that little book appeared to contain all the facts in the world, so naturally when it was published as a seven volume series by Mondadori, owner of the Italian Disney franchise, we all rushed to purchase it. Alas, it was such a crushing disappointment: despite being physically seven times as unwieldy as the real thing, it contained but a pitiful fraction of all the facts in the world.

Books such as What do You Know?, or Hamlyn's equally popular 365 Things to Know, are exhibits of interest for those who wish to construct a contemporary archaeology of knowledge. By asking such questions, and delivering those particular 'facts', they construct their subjects according to a set of expectations to be embodied. In both instances it's not so much a case of what do you know? but rather of who are you, knowing? and the answer would be the model little male citizen who's going to do well at school, be mindful and respectful of the authority of his elders, and in time dutifully join the caste of the technocrats. A child of positivist rationalism with ready access to a large but finite set of non-problematic units of knowledge.

Who were the Pilgrim Fathers?
In Tudor times a number of Puritans lived in Lincolnshire in England, where they were often badly treated because of their faith...
That is no doubt the critique you'd expect me to put forward, and it's as far as it goes. But I wonder if there is a further dimension to be read into the rhetorical framing of both of these books, specifically how each fact is formulated as the answer to a question. That is meant to mimic the inquisitiveness of children, I suppose, but consider how much more pointed and open-ended actual children's questions are: our seven year old is just as likely if not more to ask us why do we die? or why is there war? as which is the fastest land mammal?

So on the one hand again the books strike us for how they fail to push the door of knowledge any further than a smidgen ajar; on the other, they replicate a key mode of address that is common to many of our technologies of information, from the ancient oracles all the way down to telephones and computers.

What are computers?
Computers are machines, although they do not work like other kinds of machines. They are more like mechanical brains
I've included the telephone there because of one aspect of its evolution that has always fascinated me. When my mother moved to Milan to study, she found work in the local telephone exchange - it was the early Fifties, and in order to call outside of the city you still needed to go through an operator. But as the telephone became more affordable and more people started using it, the company found that it wasn't just to communicate with the owners of other telephones, but also, and surprisingly often, to ask questions directly to the operator. It could be any old question, the sort of things nowadays we ask Google, and since my mother had completed the equivalent of teacher's college, she was one of the operators called upon to try to answer them. She reminisced about that once when the family was sitting in front of a film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made at the time, Desk Set (1957), which is about the research department of NBC - looking very much like an upscale version of the set up Mum would have been part of - and of the attempt by an engineer to introduce a computer, EMERAC, to do the work of the female staffers.

It's a funny old film, and if IBM was planning to use it to showcase and promote the age of computing, it's likely to have backfired. Anyhow, this is what EMERAC looks like.

The operator sits on the left hand side of the picture and queries the computer by typing questions in plain English onto the terminal; EMERAC then prints out the responses, also in plain English. Now even if it’s not how you approach Web searches yourself, if you run a website you’ll know that a lot of people do just that - type a question, expect to be directed to a site containing the answer, hopefully in something approaching plain language. And most often, they fail. I have mentioned in the past how people have been (mis)directed to this very blog asking the most unlikely questions, but it’s hardly unusual: Robyn saw the funny side of it a while back, while Deborah has furnished a truly disturbing set of examples. I think the interest around the time when Wolfram Alpha was launched also had to do with the prospect of finally being able to ask straight questions of our machines, like in the movies. But of course Wolfram Alpha is just like EMERAC: it can only process facts that were previously fed into it, whereas most of us want to tap into it, the Web, the true font of human knowledge. And our means of doing that are just too imperfect.

Humour me then as I invite you then to delve a little further into whether the idea of the information glut - with its attendant binge thinking I described last week - has any merit. And consider to this end the following proposition: that if books for children like What Do You Know? appear to us hopelessly outdated and outmoded, pitiful relics of a not-so-distant past when some people still aspired to draw a circle around knowledge, and such a small one at that, yet we are vexed today by the inverse of that untenable position: a proliferation of questions lost in a cacophony of answers. The postmodernist in me is quite comfortable with this: the Web is a place of contested knowing(s), which refuses to give definitive answers, and questions in fact at every turn how we can come to anything but provisional conclusions at best - it always asks us, how do you know? But the Marxist in me, far less so, and longs against his better judgment for a time of grand narratives and greater clarity, of questions with answers that led to actions that could change the world.

For now I’m going to leave it there, pointedly hanging, a question with too many possible answers - although naturally you are more than welcome to share some of yours in the comments. Next week we'll take this up with an instalment on the subject of The Death of Cinema. Because maybe it really is

Clifford Parker. 365 Things to Know. London: Hamlyn, 1968.
Kenneth Allen, Neil Ardley, Arthur Thomas, Jean Stroud, Alan Blackwood.
What Do You Know? London: Hamlyn, 1973.

Excerpts from both books in this week's gallery.