How many times have you heard this phrase: ‘I’ll Google that for you” when trying to locate some information? The ‘I’m feeling lucky’ box is clicked and a page showing what is almost certainly the answer to your question flicks up. Fantastic, eh? An instant solution to your information quandary! Why waste time by asking a person something, or even worse, looking in a book when you could ask a search engine? This is truly great – the dog’s bollocks of learning.
But is this apparent marvel really the answer to all of our information needs? I doubt it.
Search engines are not infallible. It’s commonly assumed these days that all useful information is on the internet, but it isn’t. Most academic research is held in databases that are prohibitively expensive for those without university affiliation or access to a good library; an increasingly dying and neglected entity There are enormous quantities of data that reside in books that haven’t yet been digitised. Such ease in the accessibility of what we can see obscures the fact that so much is in shadow or missing altogether.
My view? Well, if “knowledge” now means ‘whatever you can find on Google’, its meaning has become dangerously shrivelled, and mankind as a whole is strolling nonchalantly down a very dangerous path.
And what is new is not necessarily the solution to the scenario of what we find electronically is the last word. The information at our fingertips is more diverse than ever before, but in some ways it is more limited.
There is nothing wrong with the great dictionaries and encyclopaedias, the Catholic Church’s list of banned books, the Domesday Book, Renaissance atlases, manuals of whist and etiquette, astronomical catalogues of stars, classics such as Gray’s Anatomy or manuals of chemical reactions. Old reference books embody vanished ways of looking at the world. The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica divided human beings into five types: American, European, Asiatic, African and ‘monstrous’. Absolutely wondrous.
These, he argues, made possible much of 19th- and early-20th-century science and engineering, and inspired the invention of computers – the job of which, it was at first assumed, would simply be to do those same tedious calculations. And so the book inspired the computer, which in turn threatened to make the book obsolete. Yeah, right. Dream on kid….
But don’t discount completely the value of the electronic media. There is an equal need for Wikipedia and its ilk. The data hoard of IMDb is tremendously valuable. But the quiet serenity of browsing through the physical form, after all, has yet to be successfully recreated electronically. An online encyclopaedia can show you links to related articles, but what about all the unrelated ones? People’s increasingly diminishing attention spans dictate skimming through at high speed until something intriguing catches the eye.
For in a world where we can search for anything, it is getting harder and harder to happen across what we never knew we wanted to know, and which is often far more interesting than the information that we wanted in the first place.
So go more quietly in life. Appreciate the things that sometimes, take more time, because the results can oft be more pleasing and enlivening than you think. And give some serious love to your local library. They’re a vanishing breed (in the UK, anyway, so thanks, crappy Government) and need to be cherished.