It used to be that the greatest obstacle to doing research, be it scientific, literary, or any other kind, for that matter, was actually acquiring the requisite data. Many public libraries were underfunded, or closed when the data was needed, or otherwise inaccessible to those that sought the information contained within their walls. Academic research was-and often still is-published in exclusive academic journals, whose high cost prevented the wider dissemination of the research. The list of barriers is nearly endless.
A New Paradigm
Now, with the tremendous proliferation of low-cost bandwidth and cheap data storage and computing power, many of those barriers have come down. Any time, day or night, anyone in the world can access much of the knowledge previously stored in libraries in journals, simply by doing a Google search. Even scholarly magazines are beginning to offer their findings in an “open-source format” online. Harvard has its Open-Collections Program, which provides “online access to historical resources from Harvard’s renowned libraries, archives, and museums,” and MIT offers Open Courseware, which enables anyone with a computer and internet access to ‘take’ a course at MIT. The list goes on, but this time it is a far more extensive list, one that comprises millions of blogs and wikis, corporate web sites, universities, encyclopedias, dictionaries, medical web sites, and so on.
In other words, we have gone from a period in which a key skill required of a researcher was data acquisition, to one in which the fundamental skill needed is that of knowing how to parse through the endless flood of data coming our way. While it is Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” we as individuals need to learn how to deal with the plethora available of information available to us. And we need to learn how to parse through information not only in terms of technology, but also morally, ethically and philosophically.
Learning to Navigate a New Paradigm
What I mean is that it is very easy to be drawn into the world of information and never leave it. We do a google search for one thing, only to stumble on five other equally fascinating items that take our attention away from our initial goal. The fact that many of the answers we are seeking to both practical, philosophical and academic questions are right at our fingertips means that it is easy to get over excited. It is easy to get distracted. And it is easy to feel like we can, and therefore should, do everything at once.
It is imperative that we begin to analyze what it means to have knowledge at our finger tips. We no longer need to memorize reams of data. Decades ago calculators began obviating the need for doing long division, for instance, by hand. But rather than take advantage of that fact and using it to our advantage, we have harped on the importance of learning how to do calculations by hand. The claim is that we must understand the basics before moving on to the larger concepts, but is it not possible that by getting too caught up on basics we are turning people off before they can get to the real exciting stuff? Why not take advantage of the fact that computers can do many things better and faster than we can, and allow our youth to focus on making the connections between ideas, rather than on the details of those ideas?
In other words, what I’m arguing is that when knowledge is so easily and inexpensively accessible, we don’t need to teach people to memorize and categorize knowledge. Rather, we need to teach them to parse through that knowledge, and in particular to look for the connection between seemingly disparate bits of information. Furthermore, it’s time we recognize that the virtual world can and should complement the real world. That is a notion with many implications, not least of which the possibility that people become so involved in computers and televisions that they forget their connection to trees and mountains. The trick is to encourage exploration of the virtual world, and to do so in such a way that nourishes exploration of the real world as well.
The Internet Abounds With Possibility
When I think of the Internet, the first word that comes to my mind is possibility. Possibility isn’t always a good thing: oftentimes, it overwhelms people. That is to say, sometimes we prefer NOT to have a choice. But choice is precisely what the internet affords. Do I want to read the NY Times or the Atlantic Monthly? Do I want to watch the Daily Show or a video on YouTube? Do I want to write a blog post, read my friend’s blog, or go on Facebook? And finally, do I want to go for a walk in the park, or do I want to “surf the web”? These choices present obstacles that are unique to our times. Think about it: we can now select between being consumers, designers, writers, commentators, artists, and so on. As we become more accustomed to this reality, we will better understand what that kind of limitless choice means. After all, these profound changes have implications for the way we understand and relate to ourselves and our surroundings. We’ve yet to make sense of it all. . .