Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Google made me smrt

Chris Davis

I'm a history buff.   I've read countless writings both fictional and non-fictional that stretch back to the beginnings of our known record-keeping as a species.

Those were NOT the days.

There's a misty-eyed lie that seems to be repeated in almost every culture.
I find it in Livy.  I find it in Dickens.  I find it in Twain.  I find it in Burpee.  I find it in the random aging stranger who strikes up a conversation at a coffee shop. I suspect I've been guilty of uttering it myself.  It's the lie that things were somehow better before now.

It's the lie that the 20 years of life encompassing any one individual's adolescence and early life were the good years for mankind.  You know how it goes.  The music was better, the girls were prettier, young people worked harder, the air was cleaner, pizza had crustier crusts...the list tends to be a long and personalized one.

Here's the real scoop.

Food is better now than it ever has been, and has never before been produced in such quantity, with such widespread distribution.  Shelter is better too.  Getting from one place to another has vastly improved.  Young people are better educated as a group than ever before in our history.  They work just as hard as they ever have, with older people standing over them, insecurely assailing their work ethic in a manner older than the pyramids.  It's easy to be the expert when you've worked a job for 20 years.  Democracy is so close to being a reality that many millions already believe they have it.  Literacy rates have increased astronomically since the days when only priests could translate the Latin texts of their Bible's, when knowledge was reserved for specialists, mystics and heretics.  Music is everywhere, incredible unrestrained varieties of it, a renewal and rebirth that belongs to the people, a cultural movement bigger than any rock star or popular style.  I'll address that thorny issue some other time.

I wouldn't trade the house I'm writing this from for a log cabin with no running water or electricity, mud chinking out the cold.   You don't miss your hot water til it's gone.  I wouldn't trade my access to Google for any number physical dead-tree encyclopedias, out of date before the printing press was cranked up to replicate them.

In my childhood, a college-level education was reserved for the well-off with the leisure time to spare in their young adulthood.  Oh, you went to college and didn't consider it leisure time?   You'd be one of those well-off I mentioned.  Sure, most of the poorer folk could pick up copies of out-of-date textbooks to study between shifts at crappy entry-level jobs, and there were a lot of educational television specials scratching the surfaces of deeper subjects.

Now, there's Google.  Sure, and Bing.  And Ask (shudder).  And Wikipedia. And thousands of free books, legal, copyright free, all the classics really, thousands of years of mankind's history and thoughts.  Available to anyone and everyone, all the time. Need to know how to drive a nail straight?  I bet there's an app for that.  How to fix the drip-rail on a 1967 Ford Mustang?  There's pages and pages of advice for that one. Bottom line, access to knowledge has never EVER been this good for the average person.  Not even close.  

I've got over 1000 books in my basement.  It took several trips with a van to move them all the last time I changed addresses.  Those boxes get heavier every move.   I've got over 3000 books on my e-reader, because it's only got a 16 gigabyte memory, and I figure once I finish those I will find time to replace them with ones I haven't read.  Or, for the price of 5 or 6 new hardback books, I may buy a better one.  It weighs about 160 grams.   Guess what's coming with me to the retirement home when the day finally comes?

That kid glued to his or her phone, texting like mad?  She or he is part of the smartest generation mankind has ever produced.  Masters of multi-tasking.  Connected.  Informed.  Up to date.  Subtly encouraged to question.  They can all type.  The old english language was too full of time-wasting irrelevant characters, so they invented a new one.

If you're an old fuddy-duddy like me, ask yourself this question: Did you ever get together with a few million like minded people and reinvent a language to make it more efficient?

Me neither.

Sure, when everybody all of a sudden got a Facebook account and joined the future it resulted in a decline in the overall quality of discourse, temporarily.  Then an interesting thing began to happen, a trend that I believe continue.  People who had previously placed no value on intelligent communication began to see how foolish some of their thoughts appeared when actually "put into print".  One by one, they begin to check their spelling a little more often.  They are forced to clarify their thoughts.  They are forced by peer pressure and the process itself to become more literate.  They become, osmotically, better informed about the society they live in.  The made-up facts so common in daily discourse are starting to disappear, withering under the threat of "let's Google that".  Nowadays, if you want to make an argument, much less win one, you're actually obligated to know something about the subject.

Irrelevant and obvious internet Trolls aside, it takes more than having the loudest voice or the most intimidating demeanor to be the dominant person in a conversation online.  Ferociously defending a point of view that doesn't stand up to a quick fact-checking results in a click of the virtual "ignore" button.

Nobody likes to be ignored.  Behaviours modify to be part of the discussion. The raving "my point of view is right" person slowly evolves into, at the very least, a person who tries to back up their point of view with facts.  A more rational person.  A person who has learned how to learn.

This changes everything.

Smart is the new cool.
Dumb doesn't cut it anymore. The old bully on the block is at a disadvantage.
Every bit of human knowledge, literature, opinion, speculation, and innovation is readily available to billions of people, all the time.
Lies wither under the bright lights of information.

Knowledge, finally, is free.  We are leading ourselves out of the darkness.


  1. Phil Burpee28/11/11

    Golly. Politics didn't do it. Militarism didn't do it. Animal husbandry didn't do it. Hockey didn't do it. Ornithology didn't do it. Astronomy didn't do it. Nor did hunting or totalitarianism or murderous depravity or various other musings. But Mr. Davis finally rises up in righteous indignation over perceived affront to the rites of googling. And splendidly risen up too. Of course, like all good self-absorbed hacks, he gravitates quickly to his perception of the matter at hand, rather than the matter itself. He fixes, as it were, on the branches rather the the trunk. For I do indeed celebrate the ever-widening sea of knowledge that washes upon our collective shores. It is the cheapening and petty use of that mighty potential that I find exasperating (monkey-chatter - oo oo oo, ee ee ee). Cell-phone cameras in Tahrir Square though - now there's a communication tool being put to real use. And yes, Livy was a poodle. But Twain? - that white suit? - that pipe? And Dickens? - c'mon - such prose! Sublime. One shouldn't confuse celebration of certain glories and achievements of the past with any automatic condemnation of either the present or the future. The 'betterness' of the current world is anyway grimly offset by the extirpation of so many of our fellow creatures. Ask a rhinoceros how he likes your house - big deal that things are so fun for humans.
    As for the new language being wrought by our youth even as we speak - sure - me Tarzan, you Jane. Quite the achievement. But YYSSW, it may seem like some sort of cultural advance but it might just be 2GTBT. And really, DILLIGAF? The notion that this might be evolution at work has me ROFLMAO. So TYFYC, but I think perhaps YRYOCC. I'll stick with Shakespeare, and Ginsberg, and Annie Dillard. It is, however, comforting to realize that Danielle Steele is available to anyone on the planet 24 hours a day (and Burpee too!). It's a wonderful world.

  2. Geez Phil, only you would be upset to be included in the list of Livy, Dickens, and Twain! Of course, Dickens and Twain would probably be resentful of being included in the same list as Livy, since he licked the boots of Empire and they fought for the common man to their dying breaths. To me Dickens and Twain stand as pure examples of the potential beauty and power of language wielded well.

    I am indeed a hack, in such company.

    I lol at your continued disgust at textisms, when the works of political pundits everywhere are ripe with piled-on acronyms pronounced with the fluidity of inside-traders separating citizens from their doubloons.

    I beg indulgence for our youth, for were we all not young and callow once? The difference is, when I was a kid and I said something dumb, it was gone again into fading memory within moments. Try making a mistake these days. Were you ever drunk in public as a youngster? I was. It never ended up on youtube.

    PS folks, don't worry, it's just a couple of old hacks trading barbs. It's how we keep our pens sharp.

    Gimme a hug, you big lug.

    In the words of the immortal Tigger, TTFN.


    Chris Davis

  3. PS, Ginsberg was a prat. A funny prat, but a prat.

  4. Phil Burpee28/11/11

    "Waiter - there's a turd in my soup!" A. Ginsburg

  5. Okay, point made. He was just a prat.

  6. Dueling pens, gentlemen?

    I'll sell tickets...

  7. Anonymous15/12/11

    Interesting view... All of this luxury is wonderful. All of it we abuse. We consume, and destroy and have done damage beyond repair. And it's almost the technological revolution that has sent us spinning quickly yet steadily to something none of us want. It's sad that even if we change we can't quite fix it. But it doesn't mean we should stop trying.

  8. I certainly agree we shouldn't stop trying. While I agree that the technological revolution includes hazards and drawbacks, I truly believe overpopulation is our linchpin problem. Successful deployment of technology is of course one of the factors that allows us to overbreed, and at the same time, if we got our population under control we could be living a pretty fantastic life here on planet Earth.
    -Chris Davis


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