Accelerating Knowledge

The rate at which man has been storing up useful knowledge about himself and the universe has been spiraling upward for 10,000 years. The rate took a sharp upward leap with the invention of writing, but even so it remained painfully slow over centuries of time. The next great leap forward in knowledge—acquisition did not occur until the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century by Gutenberg and others. Prior to 1500, by the most optimistic estimates, Europe was producing books at a rate of 1000 titles per year. This means, give or take a bit, that it would take a full century to produce a library of 100,000 titles. By 1950, four and a half centuries later, the rate had accelerated so sharply that Europe was producing 120,000 titles a year. What once took a century now took only ten months. By 1960, a single decade later, the rate had made another significant jump, so that a century's work could be completed in seven and a half months. And, by the mid-sixties, the output of books on a world scale, Europe included, approached the prodigious figure of 1000 titles per day.

One can hardly argue that every book is a net gain for the advancement of knowledge. Nevertheless, we find that the accelerative curve in book publication does, in fact, crudely parallel the rate at which man discovered new knowledge. For example, prior to Gutenberg only 11 chemical elements were known. Antimony, the 12th, was discovered at about the time he was working on his invention. It was fully 200 years since the 11th, arsenic, had been discovered. Had the same rate of discovery continued, we would by now have added only two or three additional elements to the periodic table since Gutenberg. Instead, in the 450 years after his time, some seventy additional elements were discovered. And since 1900 we have been isolating the remaining elements not at a rate of one every two centuries, but of one every three years.

Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the rate is still rising sharply. Today, for example, the number of scientific journals and articles is doubling, like industrial production in the advanced countries, about every fifteen years, and according to biochemist Philip Siekevitz, "what has been learned in the last three decades about the nature of living beings dwarfs in extent of knowledge any comparable period of scientific discovery in the history of mankind." Today the United States government alone generates 100,000 reports each year, plus 450,000 articles, books and papers. On a worldwide basis, scientific and technical literature mounts at a rate of some 60,000,000 pages a year.

The computer burst upon the scene around 1950. With its unprecedented power for analysis and dissemination of extremely varied kinds of data in unbelievable quantities and at mind-staggering speeds, it has become a major force behind the latest acceleration in knowledge-acquisition. Combined with other increasingly powerful analytical tools for observing the invisible universe around us, it has raised the rate of knowledge-acquisition to dumbfounding speeds.

Francis Bacon told us that "Knowledge ... is power." This can now be translated into contemporary terms. In our social setting, "Knowledge is change"—and accelerating knowledge-acquisition, fueling the great engine of technology, means accelerating change.


Toffler describes and quantifies the increasing production of information in human civilization and its implications.

Folksonomies: information knowledge books growth

/art and entertainment/books and literature (0.662128)
/science/chemistry (0.441063)
/technology and computing (0.357967)

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Europe:Continent (0.900478 (neutral:0.000000)), Gutenberg:Person (0.690970 (neutral:0.000000)), Toffler:Person (0.559135 (neutral:0.000000)), knowledge—acquisition:City (0.505056 (positive:0.277135)), Francis Bacon:Person (0.486755 (neutral:0.000000)), United States:Country (0.479157 (neutral:0.000000)), Philip:Person (0.475982 (positive:0.381201)), Siekevitz:Person (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), fifteen years:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), three decades:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), two centuries:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), 10,000 years:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), three years:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), ten months:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), 200 years:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000)), 450 years:Quantity (0.445599 (neutral:0.000000))

Acceleration (0.963467): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Periodic table (0.873947): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Kinematics (0.768756): dbpedia | freebase
China (0.703793): geo | dbpedia | ciaFactbook | freebase
Chemical element (0.681627): dbpedia | freebase
Chemistry (0.624343): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Discovery (0.617359): dbpedia | freebase
Time (0.581656): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 Future Shock
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Toffler, Alvin (1990), Future Shock, Random House LLC, Retrieved on 2013-12-19
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: social science


    01 MAY 2013

     Information Deluge

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