The advantages of organizing knowledge in terms of country and place

When a child is looking at a map, he or she is probably organizing some of the associated knowledge in terms of location or plac — “Hmm…so there’s a boot-shaped country at the bottom of Europe.”

If you say “I don’t know much about Algeria.  I should read Alastair Horne on the country, watch Battle of Algiers, and try to speak with some Algerians,” you are again organizing knowledge, and your quest for knowledge, in terms of place.

Alternatively, you might organize your knowledge in terms of historical eras, of fields of science, or in terms of people you know — “that’s Johnny’s view of the world!”  Of course we all use some combination of these methods and others.

I find that people who travel a great deal often organize their knowledge in terms of physical location.  For instance, they might be curious about visiting parts of the world they have had no previous exposure to, or alternatively they might decide “I am going to specialize in Brazil.”

I see a few advantages from organizing knowledge in terms of place:

1. It encourages objectivity, as most of us do not have strong political or partisan opinions about most other countries.  In contrast, if you set out to study “Does industrial policy work?”, you will approach your study of each place with a higher degree of bias.  Instead, just study each place, and let your conclusions about industrial policy come to you.  Quite literally, it has a useful “distancing” effect.

2. As I have mentioned, almost everyone in the world becomes an interesting potential partner in your quest for knowledge.  Even if a person doesn’t know much theory, or is not a good storyteller, almost certainly they can teach you something about the places they have lived in.

3. There are many places, so you will never feel you know so much.  And you can always be imagining the next quest.

4. Increasing returns to scale will drive your curiosity, much as one might seek to capture stones in the game of Go.  Imagine knowing all the countries that surround Uzbekistan, but never having visited Uzbekistan itself.  Oh how the passions would rise!

5. Even if distant travel is not available to you, you can study so many social science questions by comparing parts of your city, or by considering adjacent towns and their differences.

6. Folding over pages in a book, leaving books in piles on the floor, and trying to remember “where in a book you read something” are all methods of using space to better organize your knowledge.  Subsequent innovations in VR and AR may help us advance on these techniques.

Organizing knowledge in terms of place does not always encourage theoretical reasoning or thinking in terms of models.  It is therefore especially useful for people who tend to be systematizers in the first place.

In general, I believe that many people have a quite underdeveloped sense of how to use physical space as a cognitive tool.  You may recall that many medieval and Renaissance memory systems (pre-Google!) instructed the user to imagine all of the information arrayed at different points in physical space, such as in a sequence along a road, or as rooms in a house.

Similarly, if you organize your knowledge of the arts, music, and economics by country and place, many of the underlying study objects may become much more vivid to you.


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