When Knowledge Leaves

E-mail Melanie Martella

What do attempts to translate a long-defunct language using seriously high-tech imaging and U.S. manufacturing have in common? Well, they both involve the loss and gain of knowledge, albeit of very different types.

In the case of the defunct language proto-Elamite, nobody has managed to decipher the 5000-year old script, and not for lack of trying. The latest advance uses the device described in Sean Coughlin's BBC News article, "Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing" to capture every mark on the tablets and thus provide the clearest possible images of the writing to those attempting to translate it. When discussing why the tablets have been such a trial to translate, Dr. Jacob Dahl of Oxford University explains that they contain a lot of mistakes: "He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.

This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. "It's an early example of a technology being lost," he says."

For whatever reason, the ancient scribes didn't codify a standard version of their writing system nor ensure that new scribes were Doing It Right, and the writing system petered out. As spoken languages vanish, so do written ones, but at the least the written ones leave a hard copy behind, whether it's in clay, stone, parchment, paper, or wood.

For U.S. manufacturing, increasing automation has drastically improved our ability to make stuff with greater efficiency and productivity; to keep machines running; and to understand what's happening in our processes to an unprecedented degree. But automation and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs makes people worried about the manufacturing know-how that's leaving along with those workers. I'm not an economist or a business analyst, I've just been around engineers for a long, long time and I know that the ability to manufacture something is a complicated multidisciplinary process that involves a great deal of expert knowledge. Knowing what you want to build isn't the same as knowing how to build it.

In 2009, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih titled "Restoring American Competitiveness". The article (PDF) is available here. (The authors have since expanded the ideas expressed in the article into a book, "Producing Prosperity: Why American Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance".) Their argument is that manufacturing is key to innovation and that, by outsourcing development and manufacturing work and decreasing the amount of money going into basic research, companies have saved money but that the resulting loss of skilled workers, manufacturing infrastructure, and technical know-how also limits their ability to make new, cutting edge products. (You can also read Steve Denning's August 2011 Forbes article, "Why Amazon Can't Make A Kindle In the USA", the first of an eight-part series on outsourcing.)

For those of you in the trenches, what do you think? Does this match what you see?

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