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upon one of these books, I am surprised to discover that they aren’t actually older: this one surely would have been outdated in its crude approach to the world of knowledge by the time it came out?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.


Anonymous said...

indeed. like philip i too had my thirst for knowledge sated with big colourful books about not a heck of a lot at all.

and looking back, what they did was give me a 7 or 8 year olds toolkit of facts and figures to explain what i was seeing.

why and how tadpoles would change for instance. and lo and behold!! they did just that.

i was on a one-way ticket to deconstructing epistemologies!

although i've yet to actually do that in full colour.

wrod verification: hautbar the limit to how arrogant i can be.

Unknown said...

Word verification; wownism

I just posted because of that bad word. Oh and to say, Gio, you're moving the whole blog thing to a higher level, and for that I thank you.
Now I go play with my bad wownism.

rob said...

I loved similar books as a kid- pictorial histories of the world- or, an especial favourite, a pictorial history of ships and sea-faring. I know them now to have been euro-centric and sometimes wrong.
But I'm often astounded how little people know- or care- for the broad sweep of human history- crammed, I suppose, into a mere 6000 years, and jam-packed with myth-making, but still redolent of who what and how we are as a species.
I'm not a 'post-modernist' as far as I know- though I'd like (who wouldn't?) to think my understanding of epistemology is not simple or naive.
But I'm struck by how poorly post-modernism has served the leftist-progressive politics it often wears on its sleeve.
Yes there's been some good work, undermining some of the intellectual foundations of the right.
But it's also led to trivial work and intellectual abstractions; academics dancing in so many multi-coloured bubbles.
And underlying it are two broad notions which have been especially destructive. Both contain useful- though ultimately incoherent- ideas, but have also been dispiriting cul-de-sacs for the idealism and active involvement required to take part in political life.
One is a intellectual tendency to indentify with the solipsistic far more strongly than the communitarian. Derrida tells us we cannot ever 'really' communicate. So we drift about, disconnected consumers, trying to lip-read and laughing at what might be the joke of another- but is always perhaps our own.
The other, related, notion is the dissolution- the disgrace! of asserting anything as 'truth' or 'fact'. No! It's all a game of power and propaganda.
Well, that's a nasty game. And one the right play far better. While a sufficiently post-modern response to blatant propaganda (in the current 'debate' in the US about health-care reform for example) may be to ironically sit on the sidelines (don't get mad- get ironic!) guffawing at the interplay of idiocy- battles, wars, campaigns- are lost, time after time.
Nostalgia for a simpler time? Perhaps.
The last thing I want is to get into a battle about post-modernism. What I'd almost enjoy is a good strike- marching about with a dumb, simplistic placard amid a straggle of workmates. (Or strangling some of the management with one of their own tricky, interminable H-R concocted weasel phrases.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Rob: You harumph now, just wait until I've spent the next several months constructing a slow and elaborate defence of postmodernism.

What? Hey... where's everybody going? Come back here!

But seriously, I only mentioned the dreaded P word to establish some context about the person who's making certain claims about whether we can have too much information, and in what specific ways - it will come in handy next week. I'd take issue with your claim that postmodernism disetablishes notions of fact or truth, and defer to this excellent piece by Stanley Fish for elaboration. In terms of the political arguments to be had, I've been dragged into one of those on somebody else's turf, and boy, did it smart. But I'll stand by the central assertion I was arguing so poorly, namely that having an appreciation of the insights of a Foucault, a Derrida, a Haraway should hardly be incapacitating of paralysing. Which is not to say I never feel ambivalent or befuddled, as I suggested in this week's post. And yes, like objectdart I too also have yet to deconstruct in full colour or high definition. Heh.

@Merc: wowning sounds like something you ought to be chided for.

@Philip: excellent, thank you, I shall be on the lookout for that book at the downtown ministry bookfair next month. What better place?

In researching this post I came across a parent review of Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust which listed amongst the cons "children ask hard questions". I suppose I can see where the parent in question was coming from, but was very much struck by the wording.

The perspective that incorporates both of these is of course the satiric

I'm stacking materials for a post on satire as mode of enquiry and might have to phone a friend or two... consider yourself warned. Also, this piece by Lyndon Hood in Werewolf, should it have escaped your attention.

Unknown said...

Word verf; emisties, a Roamin' postman who cries often.

Mon brave, despite my better efforts I have lived a life more chided.

Keri Hulme said...

Ooo! Love that strange crossover word font/fount...

When I was growing up, centuries ago, it was Authur Mee's (I think)" Book of Knowledge" - all 8 volumes of it.
I learned *so* much (a lot of which I had to unlearn over the years - but not how to apply a half-nelson
or chess...)

GZ said...

The postmodernist in me is quite comfortable with this...

But the Marxist in me, far less so

I leave it to the Habermas-Gadamerians to resolve things.

They give us the promise of intersubjective reason by which we can ultimately explain our world, but the knowledge that explanation can never be reached, only approximated.

And to the extent that we are human and irrational, misapproximated.

Philip said...

children ask hard questions

Depends how hard you try to answer them, I suppose. I was told as a child that the US entered the Vietnam War because the north invaded the south. Nothing difficult about that.

satire as mode of enquiry

Sounds interesting; I hope to hear more. I was recently reading Lawrence Berkove's superb study of Ambrose Bierce, which devotes an entire chapter to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and shows the various traps whereby the reader is strung along to the end of the rope. I don't think it's what you mean, but I suppose one might consider that sort of thing a "mode of enquiry" - the reader who cares enough can go back and see how his irrational expectations led him along just that path and precipitated him into just that entirely predictable, but somehow unanticipated, abyss.

Word Verification: ingst, an igzistinshal pine in the Antipodes.

Lyndon said...

I have an pciture-dictionary style book at home (vaguely like the original of this) that, in the course of things things, provides authorative answers on whether the thumb is a finger and the tomato is a vegetable.

rob said...

just wait until I've spent the next several months constructing a slow and elaborate defence of postmodernism.

Heh- somehow I'm not so scared.
I have to confess that my reading of post-modern canons hit early- and then sank near- the rock of On Gramatology.
I have started on- and will finish- Fish someday. His name is so- friendly and his prose is readable. 25 meagre pages isn't so much, especially if I can sneak it in at work ;)
But I find myself agreeing with some of the first commenters. I think Derrida was fundamentally wrong about language. Rorty and Kuhn have both provided critical insights into scientific practice- then inflated their insights into castles in the air.
To founder on Derrida is to miss all the fun stuff. Hence I'm sour on the whole kaboodle.
But the sun is shining, the blossoms are pinging out, and I'm off Fish-ing: life is good!

rob said...

Oh. 25 pages of comments, but that was all from Prof Fish?
Dang, just getting ready for some meaty stuff. I'll have to get back to work!

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Rob: Oh. 25 pages of comments, but that was all from Prof Fish?

You didn't actually think that the New York Times had published a 25-page defence of French philosophy, did you? They might have regretted their abhorrent obituary of Derrida, but not quite to that extent I'm afraid.

@Philip: I don't think it's what you mean, but I suppose one might consider that sort of thing a "mode of enquiry" - the reader who cares enough can go back and see how his irrational expectations led him along just that path and precipitated him into just that entirely predictable, but somehow unanticipated, abyss.

It's not what I meant but it's also more interesting than what I meant, so I plan to turn it into what I will always have meant all along.

(I had in fact something more basic in mind, along the lines of the observation that an average page of The Onion or two minute segment of the Daily Show have propositions of greater truth value than a corresponding page or two minute segment of, say, the New York Times and a BBC newscast respectively. Which is banal enough, but has some implications for the definition of what constitutes an historical document, or a document of any sort of shared past.)

@George: I leave it to the Habermas-Gadamerians to resolve things.

I'm going to pit Gramsci and Foucault against your pair in a ultimate tennis double. It's been too long since I've availed myself of that particular metaphor.

(I don't know Habermas enough, or Gadamer at all. Having completed my formal studies, I wonder if I'll find an opportunity to remedy that and which form it might take.)

GZ said...

Giovanni, glad to avail you. If it makes you feel better, I've only read a single article by Derrida (although I'm no Derrida derider).

Unknown said...

How did the surrealist change a light bulb?

A fish.

wverf; foriz, pro rice party slogan.

Aro Valley Pre-School said...

You might also be interested in the Awful Library Books blog . It captures a bunch of out of date or just plain dangerous titles still on shelves. Examples:
'Get the message : Telecommunications in your high tech world' (1993)
'Body Sculpture: Plastic Surgery from Head to Toe' (1972)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thanks! What a brilliant blog. Love the Will Weed for Food section.

I am in fact developing an obsession for awful books. Whenever the central library holds one if its annual sales, I wish I could rescue them all.

Philip said...

Found them! They were called How and Why Wonder Books.

Word Verification: ransgi, a contumelious epithet for the abbreviated woggler of a cashiered chindit.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Brilliant... now I know which table I'll be hitting first at the bookfair - one needs to get hold of the map whilst in the queue and have a clear purpose.

I want the one about the Old Testament and anything having to do with wars and the one about human anatomy which must be a classic judging from the cover ("here's the human body seen from behind. To see the front you'll need to send us money").

Megan Clayton said...

What do I know?
Smashed oracle, small blogger,
keywords in a centrifuge.

working and depression
high-functioning depression
potter's ground

For advice on how to live your life,
you'll have to infer through squinting eyes.

street teenagers
adventurous people
ear popper

soft flat shoes

My stories
will exchange for stories;
an anonymous trade.

your baby is the size of a cucumber
miscarriage symptoms
pregnant dog
language metaphors

all over the keyboard
we're gambling on the future

cheese wedding cake
average amount spent on a wedding

(the prophetic sky, the archival deep)

matariki seven sisters
octopus illustrations
the soul doctor

Giovanni Tiso said...

Hah! Lovely, and... we have a keyword search in common. (I'll let you guess which one, although it's easy I suppose.)