Last February, I wrote a page about the blessings of modern man, entitled If You Can Read This, You’ve Got it Made. Now I have just added another blessing to the list. Here it is:
9. The world’s knowledge is at your fingertips. Not all of it, of course, but if you have Internet access, the lion’s share of it can be reached with a few mouse-clicks. It wasn’t that many years ago when we had to go to a library to do most of our research; I have fond memories of spending many hours in libraries during my younger years. Do you remember the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf gets the idea that Bilbo’s ring is really the One Ring of Sauron, and he rides many miles on horseback to Minas Tirith? In that city’s library, we see him going through stacks of old books and loose parchments, to read whatever he can find about the One Ring. Fortunately, the libraries I have used were better organized than that.
Thanks to the Internet, we no longer need real-world libraries to do research. Appropriately, my first Internet experience was in a library, back in 1986 or 1987. My professor was telling the class about a service named Compuserve, and how great it was to have it. To demonstrate what Compuserve can do, he took us to the university library, and logged in to a bulletin board, so we could see the comments other Compuserve users had typed about Frank Herbert’s last novel, Chapterhouse: Dune. I was only vaguely aware of what he was talking about, but it did seem to me that the authors of those comments were having a good time. Little did I realize how much that would change our lives, just a decade later.
I bet you haven’t visited a library much, since you got access to the Internet. In recent years, the only times I have set foot in a library was to take advantage of their wi-fi connection, like when the Internet wasn’t working at home. My guess is that the only reason libraries are still in business is because some people are still not “wired” at home, even now.
You may think that you can find anything with Google and Wikipedia. This isn’t true, but you’re close. And with smart phones and tablets, we can access those websites from almost anywhere. Case in point: a couple years ago, I was in Oklahoma, sitting with a bunch of other people from Kentucky and Indiana, and I casually mentioned that in Florida, the fireflies don’t have yellow lights like Kentucky fireflies–they have blue lights. The guy next to me said he majored in entomology, whipped out his smart phone, and looked up blue fireflies to make sure I wasn’t pulling his leg! In the past, he would have had to hit the books, either in a library or in a set of bound encyclopedias at home, to verify my statement; imagine how much time and effort that would have taken, by comparison.
Having unprecedented access to information is a mixed blessing, though. For a start, we have needed to develop new skills to get it. I remember when I taught a computer class for educators, each semester I would spend two or three sessions just on how to find things online. Second, a lot of the information on the Internet is worthless; there are even websites devoted to information you may never use. I trust you know by now that you can’t believe everything you read or see online (e.g., see the picture below of Abe Lincoln with his iPhone!). Third, because of the ability to post links, it is dreadfully easy to get distracted while surfing the Web. We have all gone online to find one thing, and ended up wasting hours looking at other interesting things we found, that had nothing to do with the first item. This may be the information age, but it’s also the age of information overload!