Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Oh Yeah? Well, Google This!"

Phil Burpee is a carpenter and
 farmer living north of Pincher Creek.
He keeps an eye on the world
from under the big Alberta sky.

Phil Burpee, Columnist

There was a time in the ancient of days, which is to say before three or four years ago, when conversation used to be a lively process of statement and conjecture and the give-and-take hashing-out of ideas and opinions. I might stop on Main Street to enjoy a bit of jaw-wag with a fellow citizen who is, say, a Wild Roser or some such. In the course of things, such a person might opine that the Earth is flat, or that Danielle Smith is sensitive to the plight of Alberta farmers, or some such other scrap of received wisdom. In olden times I would say something like  -  "Well now, I'm not so sure you've got that altogether right there, Cecil. Let's take a look here." And then I might go on to observe that my neighbour had just sent me a note from Australia, where he'd gone to visit his son, and he made no mention whatsoever of there being a big drop-off of any sort along the way. And when he'd looked out the window of the plane, the edge of the world looked decidedly curved, just like it might if you were flying around a big ball. I might go on to point out that Ms. Smith is so in hock to corporate backers that the chance of a farmer's lot improving under her whip hand were about as good as the proverbial snowball's chance in Fort Lauderdale. And away we'd go, tit-for-tat, this-and-that, hands a-waving  -   making conversation. Lovely. But not anymore.

Now there're more than two people in this conversation. Now there's a cluster of fleshy-palmed, Yoplait-slurping, thirty-something brats down in Silicon Valley muscling in on this most timeless of human activities. If I were a modern person, which apparently I am not, I would immediately curtail the sheer joy and plasticity and living wonder of this thing called conversation, and bring down the dread guillotine of disembodied judgment. No more to roll around on the mind's tongue the delicate assemblage of flavours and spiced nuances of thought and experience. No more the scintillation of cut and thrust. No more to relish the sight of my interlocutor pushing back his hat and scratching his head with a funny squished-up look on his face as a result of my colourful and convincing arguments. All this has been swept aside. There's a new bully on the block. I would now immediately disconnect my brain from the goings-on, whip out my smart phone, and utter those cold, stark words  -  "Let's google that."

Oh dear. At what other point in the evolution of human consciousness have three such unlovely little words so fundamentally shifted the very precepts of knowledge and understanding  -  of wisdom itself. For is not 'homo sapiens' so named as being ' man of wisdom'? And is not wisdom itself a thing hard-earned and hard-won? You can't buy it. You can't cheat it. You can't fool it. You can't pretend it. And you sure as goddamn well can't google it. It's a thing you can only grow into, and it is the hallmark of all maturity. A great tree is wise to the wind in that it has shed its weak and cross-wise branches, which would only anyway one day snap and cause sap to bleed. Grandmother Grizzly sees the quad approach down below, and wisely understands that she must gather her kin and move up the mountain. Elders of our species, until we began to diaper them and shuttle them off to La-La Land with their Jeopardy and their Jell-o, had historically developed the deep-lined faces and smoldering, implacable gazes of those for whom life has been slowly relinquishing its great mysteries  -  and with that, its greatest and most poignant and bittersweet beauties  -  evanescence, release, selflessness, loss, solitude, pain, touch, sharing, return, cycles, and the sublime ability to still love the foolishness of youth. And now we throw that all away, and relinquish our awareness to the Cloud  -  increasingly unable to articulate our own thoughts without the intercession of the Machine, and slowly succumbing to the bland collectivization of experience.

How do we learn things? It's an open debate. When I was in public school, apparently it was done through a process of variously being whacked upside the head with a  yardstick, and being made to stand in the corner for long periods of time - oh, and maybe filling three or four blackboards with "I will not shoot spitballs in school", line after line after line. OK, that's one approach. Later on in high school, it seemed to be a matter of gorging on big long lists of facts and figures, and then being expected to regurgitate them on an exam in a room full of several dozen other hapless inductees. OK, that's another approach. But learning stuff is a tricky thing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can't learn to ride a horse until you've been piled off into the rocks a good few times. And you certainly can't learn how to speak as a toddler without making a whole bunch of funny noises along the way, before somebody finally figures out that you're trying to say that you "WANT THE RED BALL!" ("AH DO LAH BEEBEEE!"). I've long remembered a favourite line in a flick from the sixties or seventies (better google that) called 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', with Maggie Smith. Her character works at a girls' school in England somewhere, and is having a heated discussion with a fellow faculty-member (her squeeze, as I recall). At one point he refers to her as a 'teacher'. She bristles, and retorts -  "I am not a teacher. I am an educator, from the Latin  e ducere - to lead out, as from the darkness." Beautiful. Knowledge and Understanding are to be drawn out, not jammed in.

Ignorance is truly the darkness. Knowledge is truly the light. Understanding is the slow-flowering mechanism by which we journey from one to the other. It requires our full attention. Conversation, wherein learning so often occurs, entails speaking - and then listening, speaking - and then listening. Maintaining a quivering trigger-finger poised over the Google button does not, in my highly-opinionated opinion, qualify a person for being a conversationalist. It rather seems more like a slavering urge to instantly debunk the other person's merest utterance. "Looks like rain." "Let's google that!" - poke, poke, button, button - "Nope! You're wrong! Sunny all day! HA! " Or maybe - "I think Apollo 11 landed in the summer of '68  - I can remember it was just before my birthday." "Let's google that!" - poke, poke, button, button - "Nope! You're wrong! '69! HA!"  It's like some horrible parody of discourse  -  and that's not even to mention the addled scrabbling of all the text-your-girlfriend-while-you're-talking-to-your-mother little monsters out there who are poised to assume control of our civilization.

Ah, well  -  soon enough implants will resolve all this confusion. Thoughts will be duly sourced from appropriate algorithms. Conversation will evolve into a fidgety dance of racing thumbs, now divorced from the very index fingers to which they were so elegantly opposed for so many aeons. My kind will grow lonely, wistful -  talking more and more to the cat. And when asked to comment on some electronically-confirmed bit of information  -  oh, I can see it now........... "Oh yeah? Well, Google this!"

Phil Burpee
November 26, 2011

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