How Fragile is Our Knowledge Base?


November 2011
Ivan Obolensky

A company is made up of many employees who have helped build the company from the beginning. They not only have the knowledge of what brought them to success, but a knowledge base of what works and what doesn’t down to the smallest detail.

Because knowledge is invisible it is not even noticed when it walks out the door having been offered early retirement in order to reduce expenses. Not only does this knowledge disappear, but whole standards of ethics and standards of excellence simply vanish. How much is that worth? If it is expensive on a small scale, how costly is it on an even larger one?

In the year AD 5000, what will be remembered of our age? Will the Homer I studied in high school still be required reading? Will a copy still exist? Will there still be books, or if all knowledge and information is electronic, will it be subtly changed so that no one knows what it said originally? Will all that we now know be subject to the alterations by whim of future political and cultural correctness?

History has shown that there have been knowledge blackouts, or brownouts, where not only practical know-how has been forgotten, but major works of literature have simply disappeared never to be found again. The fact that we even have an Iliad, or an Odyssey, to read must say something about the greatness with which it was revered simply because a copy still exists. Surely the greater the work, the wider it was spread around, and the more likely it was to survive.

Then again perhaps the Homer of the year AD 5000 will be a John Grisham, or Danielle Steele. We don’t know. We do know that one of the reasons we still have many existent works of the ancient classics is because they were at one time translated into other languages and thus, preserved. One can only wonder at the 116 more Greek plays that we are sure Sophocles wrote that are lost, and what we might think and know of Greek culture if they had survived in their entirety. For myself, I can only wonder how different the political and economic ideas of the present day would be, if those works of such a politically sophisticated culture were known and had been kept safe.

Knowledge of our ancient past has been preserved thanks in no small part to what has been called “The Translation Movement”, a gift from Arab culture.

The movement started in Bagdad around the AD mid-700s in the “House of Wisdom” where Greek works as well as those from India were translated into Arabic. It was supported by large numbers of stationery shops that doubled as book shops. One in particular called Al-Nakim sold thousands of books every day and this is while Europe had only just begun to return to systematic agriculture and had deurbanized to such an extent that any education at all was confined to monastic schools studying for the most part biblical texts.1

Greek thought as well as language had permeated the Middle East all the way to India with the conquests of Alexander in the mid-300s BC. It was under the Macedonian kings, Ptolemy I Soter (The Saviour), and his son, Ptolemy II, that the great library of Alexandria was conceived and opened. The library was charged with collecting the entire world’s knowledge. It had a Royal Mandate to go to the book fairs in Rhodes and Athens and purchase whatever books were available as well as pull the books off of every ship that visited the port of Alexandria. The library kept the original texts and made copies, which were sent back to their owners.

As to whatever happened to the great library there are several stories: the first was by Plutarch in his “Parallel Lives” whereby he mentions that Julius Caesar accidentally burnt it down while setting fire to his own ships as a tactical maneuver that got out of hand.2

Another story is that when the Emperor Aurelian suppressed the revolt of Queen Zenobia in AD 274 that the three libraries, not just one, were destroyed, but only after part of the contents had been transferred to Constantinople.3

By AD 400, there are several more eyewitness accounts that the main library as well as the two lesser libraries had been completely destroyed as a consequence of the anti-paganism decree by the Emperor Theodosius I.4

In just seven hundred years, almost the amount of time from the discovery of the New World to the present day, a great storehouse, if not the greatest, of the world’s knowledge waxed, waned and was extinguished. Its books were either burned and destroyed, or taken and hidden in the nooks and crannies of the world.

Between the years AD 750-900, three hundred years later, there was a second attempt to regain the world’s knowledge base. The empire of Islam stretched from the Middle East to North Africa and part of Spain. Having been enjoined by the Prophet, Muhammad, to “seek learning as far as China”, the Caliph al-Ma’mun received the approval of the then Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, and sent an emissary of scholars to select and bring back to Bagdad all the Greek scientific manuscripts for translation into Arabic to a place called Bayt al Hikmah, the House of Wisdom. Although it originally concentrated on mathematics, it did not exclude other subjects and many other texts were copied, translated into Arabic and preserved.

Over the next two hundred years Europe started to rebound while the Islamic world began to splinter as a result of internal disputes. For the first time since the establishment of Moorish Spain in AD 711, a major city fell to Christian forces. On 25 May 1085, Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo and established direct control over it. Unlike other times when cities were taken, its libraries and centers of learning were spared. Shortly after, the huge repository of knowledge locked away in Arabic and Hebrew texts began to flow into Latin thanks to the efforts by the Archbishop of Toledo, Francis Raymond de Sauvetât. Most of the works were translated from Arabic to Castilian and then into Latin, the official Church language. Works of Aristotle were particularly singled out for translation as well as commentaries by various Arabic scholars. This project, the creation of a permanent working group of translators, became known as “La Escuela de Traductores de Toledo”, the Toledo School of Translators.

After the death of Archbishop Raymond de Sauvetât, the translating work declined. It was not for another 200 years until 1252 and the rule of Alfonso X of Castile, known as “El Sabio”, the Wise, that translating efforts redoubled. King Alfonso decided to replace Latin as the main language of translation with vernacular Castilian and simultaneously set the foundation for the Spanish language. He also insisted that the texts be easy to understand. This ensured that the texts found a much wider audience and pretty soon scholars from Germany, Italy, England and the Netherlands gathered in Toledo to learn and translate medical, religious, classical, and philosophic texts. These scholars then returned to their countries with knowledge of classical Greek, Arabic, and ancient Hebrew, that laid the groundwork for future scholarship.

Translations methods were perfected as well. In the new method, a linguist who knew several languages translated directly into Spanish to a scribe. The scribe’s work was later reviewed and edited by other editors, one of whom was Alfonso himself, who was interested in several subjects. He was also credited with having written one of the first Western treatises on chess.

Although the translation school was dismantled after Alfonso’s death, the translations found their way into many of the universities of Europe and indirectly helped fuel the humanist revival that eventually became the Renaissance.5

Without this strange and serendipitous string of events stretching across many centuries, numerous countries, three religions and several languages, it is likely we would have lost a great deal of the understanding and knowledge base of how we have come to be where we are now, and how human thought has changed or has remained the same across more than 2,000 years. We still study the classics because they speak to us eloquently on so many of the themes that are relevant today and that is perhaps why they are so important. Much of what we experience today politically, economically, and socially, has been seen before. That these past works were translated and translated again has helped us keep alive an understanding that we as a culture are built upon the cumulative knowledge of both the past and the present.

It is this constant accumulation effect that is the most significant. Current thinking in the field of artificial intelligence seems to show that neither a human mind nor a computer has unlimited learning potential. As individuals, we seem to reach certain limits where old information is dropped in favor of the new, like a bucket that can contain only so much water. That there exists some upper limit on the ability to store information is something that we all have experienced in some form or fashion: we forget.

As a culture however, particularly on a scientific basis, there does not seem to be any upper boundary on our learning capacity in the long run. Provided the knowledge base we stand on is secure, it is possible to stretch higher and higher, constantly checking that where we are going is at least different from where we have been.6

The Internet has been such a tremendous resource to help preserve and allow the broad dissemination of knowledge that we might forget how vulnerable that knowledge base is to corruption and perhaps elimination.

Diversity, in terms of species, point of view, and investments, has been an underlying principal that has contributed to survival success. In fact, the Internet itself was founded as a defense network that allowed for widespread storing of information such that it could not be taken out in a single attack.

Taking every culture’s important works and translating them into as many languages as possible is on the surface a bit extreme. But notice that the rise and fall of knowledge bases can take hundreds of years and oftentimes their destruction is measured in moments compared to the systematic building up that had to take place to create the knowledge base in the first place. Just like the twenty-five-year veteran walking out the door with a quarter century’s worth of company history and knowledge in thirty seconds, the time to ensure the preservation of that knowledge base is long before it leaves.

Translation has often been considered simply as a means to get an idea across to another culture. Translation it seems has an additional function. It can also be the only way that an idea can be preserved as the history of our world has proved more than once.

1 Lyons, J. (2011). The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

2 Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). Part II, The Life of Greece. In The Story of Civilization. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

3 Gibbon, E. (1845). History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Kindle Edition: B&R Samizdat Express.

4 Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). Part III, Caesar and Christ. In The Story of Civilization. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

5 Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). Part IV, The Age of Faith. In The Story of Civilization. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

6 Hall, J. S. (2007). Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

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  1. Danny

    Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I am impressed! Extremely useful info particularly the closing section 🙂 I deal with such info a lot.
    I was seeking this particular information for a long time. Thanks and best of luck.


    Fascinating article, thank you.

    And interesting to see how knowledge is considered to be preserved if it has been either written or translated, yet it has a lot of truth.

    How will I figure out how electricity works if there was no available material to read about it?

    So, yes the written aspect is vital.

    Internet has now so many, many, many texts on one single subject that is hard to tell which one is or not valid.

    I’d rather stick with the books and written materials

    Thank you Ivan.


    Now the trick will be to ensure that individuals are able to differentiate between past, ancient, and even current knowledge versus the other trivial, or with no real fundamental information existing on the Internet.

    Nevertheless the Internet has become a tool where, as the ancient civilizations did, we can preserve that valuable knowledge.

    I really loved this article, Ivan. Thank you very much.

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