In his latest book author Lewis Dartnell attempts something incredible; putting down on paper the essential ideas and concepts for the rebuilding of a technologically advanced civilization.
Equal parts survival guide, information repository, and essay pointing out the lack of knowledge the average person has Lewis Dartnell’s new book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, is at the very least an interesting read and at most a book that could one day bring civilization back from the brink. Its goals, both stated and unstated, are extremely lofty and Dartnell even admits that a single book will never suffice to encapsulate millennia of humanity’s progress. However within the pages are some wonderful ideas and concepts that certainly taught me some new things and could easily stand as a backbone for a group of people looking to start our world anew.
In the book, which reads more like an extensive essay on the topic, Dartnell begins with the assumption that the world as we know it has crumbled. He uses a “best case” scenario that some virus has killed off much of humankind but left behind much of our infrastructure, he chooses this for its eerie possibility and that it would give a grace period to survivors who could use the remnants for survival. Rather than focusing on immediate survival skills, for which there are volumes already in existence, Lewis Dartnell chooses to pick up where many post-apocalyptic stories end; just as groups of humans begin to band together.
The Knowledge is not an encyclopedia, it does not hold endless columns of facts and figures nor does it dispense knowledge in a supremely technical manner. Instead Dartnell uses very approachable language to lay groundwork for the reader to come to their own understandings of the basic principles that drive things such as modern chemistry or internal combustion. He moves deftly back and forth from assuming some knowledge is kept from before The Fall but also weaves information in to fill any missing gaps made by time. By no means am I an engineer but I was able to comprehend the majority of the principles stated even if they took a more careful second glance at times.
One such example is his brief exposition concerning an important metal working tool;
The first machine to create is a lathe. A simple lathe is composed of a long, flat beam called the bed, with a headstock fixed at one end and a tailstock at the other that can be unlocked to slide left and right along the bed track. The work piece is attached to the spindle on the headstock – perhaps by bolting to a faceplate, or gripped in a chuck with moveable jaws – and then the whole piece spun around this center, driven by a pulley or gear system from whatever motive force you’ve harnessed (waterwheel, steam engine or electric motor)…Astoundingly, not only is the lathe capable of duplicating all of its own components to create more lathes, but starting from absolute scratch you can even produce during the rudimentary stages of construction of your first lathe the remaining components needed to complete it.
Another aspect of this work, one that is briefly hinted at in the introduction, is the commentary it gives on the distinct separation many of us have from the actual processes that produce the world around us. The Knowledge points out that there is so much more to modern devices such as smart phones than simply knowing the design of the parts, “The device sits as the capstone on the very tip of a vast pyramid of enabling technologies; the mining and refining of rare earth minerals…, the incredibly miniaturized components in the microphone, and the network of cell phone towers and other infrastructure.” This missing knowledge extends from technological devices to the very sustenance we need daily, many of us would struggle if food was not easily retrievable from a grocery store shelf.
I certainly left intrigued at the idea of rebuilding civilization but also in awe of my own lack of respect and understanding for the complex nature of the modern world. It is easy to never give a second thought the gas flowing into my car or the electricity that allows me to write this very article(let alone the thousands of unnoticed interactions I have with technology every day) all of which require a series of complex processes which would suddenly stop if catastrophe were to strike our world. It partly left me longing to restore some of this “old world” knowledge in myself and partly left me in fear of what may come.
The Knowledge is not your standard guide for the emergency survival of one; think of it more as the intellectuals survival guide. It won’t show you how to live out the night stranded on a mountain but within its simple pages would lie something far greater than immediate individual survival. The simple, and deceptively short, book may contain just enough information to tease a rag tag group of survivors back into the masters of the earth. Hopefully that day never comes, but if it does I really hope there is a copy nearby.
–Photo: Jennifer Boyer/Flikr