The Knowledge

by Lewis Dartnell

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-698-15165-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 328

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The cover pitch for The Knowledge is that technological civilization has collapsed. A war, an asteroid, a pandemic, or some other catastrophic event has ended life as we know it. Survivors have recovered enough to stabilize the population, but all the industry and infrastructure that supports the modern world has been crippled and the knowledge lost. What do they need to know to rebuild the world? (The subtitle, How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, is deceptive. Dartnell spends a lot of time talking about what could be scavenged from the ruins after an event like a pandemic that leaves buildings and tools intact.)

This brief description may bring several incorrect ideas to mind, so a few clarifications are in order. First, this is not a book about how to survive an apocalypse, or how to stabilize society afterwards. Dartnell skips over anything related to basic survival or politics, and this book would only be of limited interest to preppers. Rather, it is focused on the key concepts and key processes that underlie much of what makes up our civilization, and how those processes can be bootstrapped and recreated, hopefully much more quickly than the thousands of years they took to develop the first time around.

Second, as much as I think Dartnell would have liked it to be, The Knowledge is not an instruction manual. There's just too much involved in modern machinery, metallurgy, chemistry, and other necessary science and engineering. What it is instead is a tour of the most important ideas, basic processes, and approaches that can lead to creation of an industrial economy. This means it's also a tour of the most critical technology and discoveries that we rely on for day-to-day living.

Each idea presented here is a bare sketch, and would require extensive research and experimentation to put into practice. The Knowledge is not a scientific encyclopedia. Rather, it's a collection of signposts and suggested directions along with some suggestions about sequencing, with special emphasis on the ideas that were unintuitive or surprising, or which took humans much longer to stumble across than would have been necessary.

I will say up front that I am quite dubious about the stated goal of this book. I'm not sure if it would be of significant assistance to people who found themselves in the circumstances that Dartnell postulates, and I'm also not sure it would be as difficult as Dartnell supposes to reconstruct these details from a good library, although the point is well-taken that most modern industrial techniques would be unavailable to a civilization starting from scratch and many historic techniques are no longer practiced and therefore not well-documented. But this book does not have to succeed at its stated goal to be worth reading. The Knowledge provides a fascinating insight into the way our current capabilities developed, other paths that development could have followed, and what building blocks are vital for the industry that we rely on.

If you are like me, the first thing The Knowledge will remind you of is Minecraft, particularly with some of the mods (such as TerraFirmaCraft) that add more realistic detail to the technological bootstrapping. It's a treasure trove for anyone who might be working on that sort of mod or game. Dartnell tries to cover as much of the spectrum of technology as possible, from farming through medicine, from basic materials to industrial chemistry, and from electrical power through transportation. Each chapter necessarily covers only the highlights, the most vital technologies and the early priorities, and many of those are relatively vague pointers. But that's enough for a fascinating orientation. It's also full of memorable trivia: the huge variety of uses to which wood can be put, the difficulty in re-establishing production of industrial acids, the shelf life of gasoline, the global seed vault within the Arctic Circle, and the importance of a long-threaded screw for a lathe, just to name a few examples.

In short, The Knowledge may or may not be a practical aid in rebuilding the world, but it's a lot of fun to read and full of tidbits that are fun to think about or pass on to others. It's also a great orientation in applied technology. The Knowledge is particularly fascinating if you have any interest in the simplified recreation of technological and industrial processes, such as in Minecraft and similar games. For authors of Minecraft mods who are aiming for realism, it might even be required reading. I'd love to see more mods based heavily on the approaches described in this book. The Knowledge also conveys, better than any book or course I've seen, an intuitive feel for the amazing complexity and ingenuity underlying industrial technology.

I pre-ordered a copy of this book as soon as I heard about it, and I was not disappointed. Despite my certainty that I would be one of the early casualties in any general social collapse, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and would like to read it again at some point. Recommended, albeit with the caveat that I do not have the background required to verify any of the facts in this book, and am assuming that Dartnell has done his research properly.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-06-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21