A little thought experiment

One of things that fascinate me most about living in complex human constructed environments (such as great cities) is the question of who actually knows what. No matter how much one knows theoretically and practically, one is bound to be surrounded by so much that one knows basically nothing about. I know next to nothing about where my food comes from and how to grow it. I get on planes that I don't really understand and type this entry on a computer made of components whose function I have never studied. It's actually amazing how little each of us knows individually -- and yet, collectively things manage to work (for the most part). So where does the knowledge lie?

A couple of weeks ago during some after-dinner conversation, my friend Krista and I took up a very specific and somewhat related question that I hoped would get me a bit further in my thinking. The question we posed is this: if somehow all records of Shakespeare in every media (print, electronic texts, the google cache, CDs, film) -- save human memory -- were to magically disappear without a trace, to what degree would it be possible to reconstruct the Shakespearean texts? For the sake of argument, we assumed that we would somehow also have access to all contemporary forms of communication and transportation devices and a good amount of resources to deploy in our reconstruction efforts. In other words, we could fly a bunch of Shakespearean scholars and actors to a desert island to which they would be confined (with their notebook computers) to see what they can pull together.

I wondered how much of Shakespeare is in active memories of living humans today -- or is latent in the community of Shakespearean students. I can certainly believe that the most famous of Shakespeare's works could be reconstructed with little effort. After all, how active performances of his plays are happening today? Quite a few I would imagine. But how about his more obscure plays? His sonnets? Are there people who have committed those texts to heart too? We were guessing yes.

As we varied the object of disappearance from Shakespeare to other matters, we came across a wide range of behaviors If the essays that I published were to perish, for instance, they would not be coming back since they neither live actively in the memories of readers nor the author. I naturally was curious about the case of Bach's music. Is his case like that of Shakespeare's works, which we were surmising, is fully recoverable -- or would there be parts of his music that would be gone forever? My guess is that the Bach oeuvre is large enough that it contains works that are not in the living memory of any musician at any given point. It's just a guess and nothing else though.

This question of recovering things from memory barely begins to scratch the surface of the question of what we know. Indeed, it's really a side issue -- but a fun one to consider nevertheless.

1 thought on “A little thought experiment

  1. Raymond,

    A fascinating set of questions, indeed. It’s reminiscent of discussions and debates about organizational culture as determinant of organizational success, and, more recently, the “knowledge management” phenomenon. While most efforts entail capitalizing on insights developed by individuals, collectively and individually, while at work, the underlying “science” is frought with still-controversial notions of what it means to be knowledgeable.

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