The theme of the week: the increased access to information that technology has granted us and how that has changed our lives in a real and fascinating way.
On Tuesday night I went to the first of a new salon series. (I will interrupt to say I’m so excited this is a thing right now! I’m all over the idea of regular salons.) One of the talks was about Didier compiling the encyclopedia, and how subversive it was to make all of this knowledge available to anyone who could read.
When I was a kid, my family made the investment of buying the World Book series of encyclopedias. They were royal blue, heavy (especially the popular letters), and took up two shelves in the hutch in the dining area. Every year the World Book people would send us an additional slim volume with all updates designated essential for that year, and then we would go through and put stickers in the main volumes so we’d know about the updates.
The World Books were a big deal. Now I didn’t have to use the encyclopedias in the library anymore! Or at least not exclusively. If I wanted to know something, I could look it up right at home. Whenever a question arose, the only options were to use reference books (either that you were lucky enough to own or obtained from the library) or to ask someone you knew and hope they knew the answer. This was not a system that encouraged constant questioning (at least without a certain level of frustration involved), and yet, it was a great improvement from the time before encyclopedias, the time before more widespread literacy, and the time before the printing press.
Now we have the technological wonder that is the internet: the search engine, perhaps our most successful AI project to date, along with Wikipedia and platforms that make publishing and information curation simpler. I look up several things every day. Today I watched a video to find out what a burning house sounded like, I looked up photos of Mediterranean-style mansions, I watched clips about the upcoming Game of Thrones season and the upcoming Veronica Mars movie, I read some updates on the economy, and I looked at many real estate listings, including user reviews of apartment complexes. So much information at the tip of my fingers. (It’s almost enough to make me salivate.)
I was talking to a friend about travel, and this increased access to data has changed the way we do that, too. When I was in France this summer, every place I stayed offered free Wi-Fi that I could access with my iPad. It took fairly extreme discipline for me to avoid the Internet in the face of this accessibility. (While I succeeded at the spirit of my goal for the most part, eschewing email and Facebook, I did look up rail timetables, attraction information, and local restaurants.) My friend took a trip on which he didn’t bring a smart phone but a camera phone, on which he had stored photos of maps and key guidebook pages, so he didn’t have to struggle with folding and unfolding a map on random street corners. I can now travel with more books than I could possibly read while only having to haul around my Kindle.
The Information Age doesn’t always feel very flashy. For one thing, we’re already used to it, and for another, it doesn’t have the movie shine of flying cars or transporters or living in space. But when I think of the evolution of the dissemination of human thought–from the development of language and then writing, to the invention of paper and later the printing press, to the projects of assembling human knowledge in museums and libraries and encyclopedias, to the rise of computing, digital data storage, the internet, portable devices, and the Cloud, with so many other steps in between–the Information Age seems truly amazing. I’m very excited to be alive to see (and benefit from) this most recent chapter of technological change.
And I’m thrilled that I’m encouraged to ask even more questions.