The YouTube routine goes as follows:
“So I have an i-Telephone, which means I have Google on my phone ... and it’s ruining our lives. Because we know everything, but we are not a lick smarter for it. If you don’t know something, wait two seconds. You will ... There is no time for mystery or wonder. I’ve literally been in bed in the morning alone and wondered: ‘Where’s Tom Petty from?’ [Pretends to use smartphone and sighs with relief] But I feel nothing! Because there was no time to not know. There was a time ... where if you didn’t know where Tom Petty is from you just didn’t know. And you felt that yearning and that deficit in your being, and you would go around and ask actual people: ‘Like, where’s Tom Petty from?’ until one fateful day you see a girl with a Heartbreakers T-shirt and you rush up to her and you’re like, ‘Hey, where’s Tom Petty from?’ And she tells you, ‘Florida,’ and a wave of endorphins and pleasure and meaning would wash over you, and you felt something, and that’s how you met your wife. Do you understand?”
I am as guilty as anyone of resorting to my handheld Google device to answer every question that pops into my head. In many ways it is a good thing that more people have more exposure to more information more of the time, but perhaps people ought to take a moment to step back and to accept not knowing. Alternatively, it is possible that the time of not knowing is over and that era is relegated to the nostalgia exhibited in Holmes’ stand-up. Maybe people in the developed world have graduated from a life of acquiring knowledge to applying that knowledge in increasingly sophisticated ways.
One of the reasons we come to the University is to accumulate knowledge, but a more important aspect is the building of our capacity to understand how that knowledge is useful. Perhaps, since any factoid can be unearthed immediately, the new frontier of not knowing exists exclusively in the realm of sophisticated problem solving — Princeton teaching us how to think. We spend less time in the classroom memorizing, reciting and recalling, so we have more time to apply our knowledge. A friend’s father, in a recent conversation, recounted the time-intensive nature of transcribing and printing his work and the risks involved with that process. A single paper took him a month to complete; any given Princeton student will write four essays in that same time period. The exposure to information allows us to do more thorough research on more topics.
I believe this smartphone-induced transformation in access to information is in many ways analogous to the invention and eventual distribution of the graphing calculator. It allowed student to tackle much more complicated mathematics at an earlier age than ever before. In the process, some students get lazy and forget how to do basic computation, but that seems to be a small price to pay for the expanded sophistication in problem solving. Nostalgia over slide rules and abacuses probably strikes less of a chord. Computers, in addition to their contribution to the world of calculation, facilitate memory storage, which allows for the accumulation and synthesis of information into unique thoughts.
The information age does come with some additional problems, such as the consistency and accuracy of the information that is found on the Internet. Importantly though, Wikipedia is far more accurate — now that it has grown tremendously in size and review — than it was when I was (not) using it in high school. Experts and scientists use the Internet to disseminate knowledge, and the user of the smartphone only need know where to look on the Internet for the best information available.
Holmes is correct that something valuable is lost in the immediacy of knowing, but there is no way to revert back to a time when knowledge was less available. We ought to place emphasis on solving problems and using the information so easily acquired to craft and answer big questions.
Aaron Applbaum is a junior from Oakland, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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