Click on Knowledge: The State of Learning in the Time of Google


Workshop organised by Gert Sørensen, Julio Jensen and Charles Lock

Date: 6-7 November 2008

Place: University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Humanities

What is knowledge? What do we know? What do others think we know?

Modern technology has transformed our access to information. Through Google, Wikipedia and countless databases we have in a very few years come to expect almost instant satisfaction for our curiosity on any topic, from the sublime to the trivial. And this prompts us to reflect on the relationship between information and knowledge, and knowledge and scholarship.

What we know has customarily been gathered in libraries (for texts) and museums (for objects); a second order of gathering is that which brings together texts on all subjects in an encyclopedia. The Library of Alexandria and the Encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Sevile stand at crucial points in the tradition of western civilization and western scholarship.

Those great projects aimed to contain and present the whole of knowledge, and that aspiration lives on in such works as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet there has also been a more restrictive scope of totalized knowledge, a disciplined knowledge, in the form of specialized reference works such as catalogues, dictionaries, digests (of medical knowledge) and pandects (of legal knowledge), as well as informal collections of miscellaneous knowledge such as are to be found in bestiaries, anatomies (Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy) and collections of essays (Montaigne, Bacon).

A third order of knowledge is that which develops in the universities, where texts and objects of study are arranged according to disciplines, and the student is required to master a discipline. That mastery can be either scholarly or practical. In either case, students have traditionally been involved in a partly ritualized access to knowledge: matriculation at university, being granted access to the library, and permission to attend lectures.  Today we hear much about interdisciplinary study, yet the very idea of a discipline is undermined by the contemporary ease of access to information. Equally, the canon, whether of knowledge or of value, can no longer be institutionally defended or protected when any book ever printed is made available online. Information generally available has resulted in the collapse of anything that might have been considered ‘general knowledge’. 

A noticeable consequence of the efficiency of Google is the deterioration of our own powers of memory: mnemotechnics have been in decline since the invention of printing, if not of writing, and today they are terminally weak. What we know is largely a matter now of knowing how to search for it. Knowledge is thus replaced by know-how or competence, and the scholarly model of university education -- mastery of one discipline, along with some familiarity with contiguous disciplines -- is replaced by the society of knowledge, or the economy of knowledge. Here knowledge, or 'intellectual capital’, is a skill or a commodity, its value to be measured exclusively in terms of its immediate practical use. Memory becomes an inconvenience when what counts as knowledge (or is technologically determined as such) is itself subject to rapid change. 

The politics of knowledge has always been contested. Some power determines what will count as knowledge, and who will be privileged to partake of that knowledge. Yet if knowledge is made available to all, and each can insist that what he or she knows should be counted as knowledge, is this a progressive move? To what extent is the activity of knowing (and interpreting, and understanding) determined by the technology?

Provisional programme

Julio Jensen, 'Authority and Encyclopedia: Reflections on Jorge Luis Borges'

Charles Lock, 'Keywords and Head Words: on the Metonymics of Organized Knowledge'

Ricardo Piñero, 'Bestiaries and the Knowledge of Nature'

Luca Pocci, 'Seeing things with words: Calvino and the visibility of utopia'

Gert Sørensen, 'The Encyclopedic Idea and the Society of Knowledge: The case of the Enciclopedia Einaudi'

Elias Polizoes, 'Modernity and the Cosmologies of Ruin' (on Baudelaire, Rilke, Pirandello, Heidegger, Benjamin)

Steen Nepper Larsen, 'Compulsory creativity – a critique of cognitive capitalism'


Call for papers

We invite papers on any topic related to the contemporary or earlier constitution of knowledge, and on the treatment of knowledge not only in theoretical reflection but also in the literature of authors such as Borges, Calvino and Perec. We are particularly interested in hearing from doctoral students and other researchers engaged in 'meta-reflection' on the way in which their work is technologically conditioned, and how those conditions might determine or threaten the constitution of distinct disciplines and areas of knowledge.

Proposals (300 words) should be submitted by 15 September 2008, to

Charles Lock:

Julio Jensen:

Gert Sørensen :

Institute of English , Germanic and Romance Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen