A New Renaissance?


It’s possible to imagine all data, all ‘bits’ of knowledge, including skills or extended experiences, floating around in space, randomly.

Human beings, over time, gradually compartment these into ‘subjects’. Anything to do with numbers goes into the Maths box; words and meanings get grouped together in Languages; anything to do with our understanding of the material universe tends to be gathered into a box called Science. People, who through prolonged experience in one field or another have become more knowledgeable about that field, are then given the task of transmitting or transferring elements of a particular field into a set of people, usually younger, who have much less familiarity with it. This has been the nature of education since the human race first realised that it possessed knowledge of enough value to want to transmit it outward to others and forward in time.

This process of compartmenting has gone on for as long as human beings have been around. The boxes which we call subjects have become rigid; the data in them are not often allowed outside to mix with that from other boxes. Knowledge of fields is contained in set texts, in physical libraries, in classrooms and in locations around the world, as well as in experts’ heads. However, in the last couple of decades, we have begun to see something new: the boxes are breaking down, bleeding, in effect, mainly because of the internet. This isn’t always conducive to better understanding: the internet isn’t a disciplined space. Open to entry by anyone of whatever level of education in any field, the quality of data available on it is not necessarily high. We see examples in the open encyclopaedia Wikipedia, in which data can be accessed at large and altered by anyone; or in the media networks, traditional and social, where what is taken to be true is open to speculation, emotion, contribution and distortion. Conventional sources and gatekeepers of collective knowledge and experience are no longer what they were: schools, universities, institutions of learning which also had the function of cataloguing and protecting knowledge, are now not the central players they were in years gone by. Things are escaping; Pandora’s Box is opening.

This can be seen to be a bad thing. But it also throws open some positive possibilities. If those floating bits of knowledge and experience are escaping from confinement, and are now, uncaged, able to be accessed by anyone with a computer connection or a smart phone, humanity might be on the threshold of a new creative explosion. If individuals can gain access to facilities, facts, formulae and forms of wisdom and experience previously held apart and hidden, might there not be a recombination and rejuvenation of culture, science, philosophy and the arts?

Just as in the Middle Ages the knowledge held by a few in isolated and privileged locations leaked out into the world through new inventions such as the printing press, leading to a European revolution which was later called the Renaissance, today we see a similar melting down of boundaries and fences. Viewpoints shifted, centres of gravity of thinking changed, old ideas were challenged in both good and bad ways in the Renaissance - might not the same thing be happening now?

Can we learn anything from this period to prepare ourselves?

After the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the new king Henry Tudor started the 16th Century by chopping back expenditure, making deals between the warring factions, and effectively settling overseas disputes. He made astute alliances through other marriages and built some of the last of the Gothic cathedrals of the country with part of the wealth he had managed to save. In effect, unknowingly of course, Henry VII had made it safe for the ideas of the Italian Renaissance to be entertained in England.