Friday, June 12, 2015

And our memories

I am, or at least once was, a person who could be described as an ‘encyclopædist,’ in other words, as some people still call me, ‘a walking encyclopædia.’ That came about because of my habit of reading when I am having lunch or breakfast or any meal when sitting alone (not of course, at the dinner table with my family, or with friends).

Back in 1975, when I was a young married man, I bought (on credit) a set of the Encyclopædia Britannica which for many years afterwards I literally devoured along with my meals. For the last ten years or so, those volumes were in storage, and I turned to other books (at first) and (later) to the internet, Wikipedia for example, for encyclopædic company.

Well, this week I brought the Britannica back to the world of the living, lodging it in a new book case in my study, and ‘picked up where I left off,’ or tried to, as I sat down to have lunch.

What did I discover? Well, for one, my eyes are not so good anymore, and it was hard to focus on the printed page. For another, the world has changed a great deal since 1975.

There’s no longer a country called ‘the German Democratic Republic’ (East Germany) anymore, and as a matter of fact, I’m not really interested in reading about the foibles of Marxism-Leninism or a failed state either.

My biggest discovery was that I have grown so accustomed to hyperlinks in the online printed pages of Wikipedia and even my own blog posts that it annoyed me that I couldn’t go off on a tangent to investigate something in greater detail that I found on the printed page.

‘That’s right,’ I had to keep telling myself, ‘if I want to know more about who this or that person was when reading the article on Louis XVI, I must put one book down and open another.’ How annoying!

It was quite humbling to realize that I, an ‘ancient man,’ had become so accustomed to the electronic media age that I would rather put the leather-bound Britannica back on its shelf, and finish my study at the computer screen. It doesn’t help at all that I now also have a tablet that has begun working again—a Nexus 7 that my sons bought me for a Christmas present a couple of years ago but which stopped working, until Jacob, my eldest son, took it apart and fixed it.

Not only that, having and using a tablet, but just last week I finally ‘upgraded’ my clam-shell cell phone to a Nexus 5 smart phone, and now I am finding it annoying that I can’t just ‘swipe to the right or left’ to change screens or close one on my computer. I never thought I’d see the day when I would be so dependent on devices, when I was the last person in my family to get a cell phone, maybe the last person on earth.

All this brought me to an appreciation of how human behaviors change so immensely, though often in very tiny increments, so that it in a matter of a few years a person or an entire generation alters their daily habits without realizing it.

I value the printed encyclopædias and my other books, but I notice that I only use them when the information I need just can’t be found on the internet. Yet, here’s another thought.

When our sources of information were exclusively found in published books, what we read there was carefully selected and authenticated by many critical minds. What we find on the internet, in Wikipedia for example, can be accurate but doesn’t have to be. It passes through far fewer filters and can therefore be slanted this way or that, claims can be made and tacitly assumed true. I suppose the same has always been true even of printed works, but not to the same degree.

Freedom brings with it many changes. We have to be ready to learn something new every day just to survive. Has it always been this way? Probably, but we only notice what’s affecting us right now, at our age, in our time and place. My lifetime spans two great ages of mankind as well as two centuries.

I was born and lived and worked at the end of the machine age, and I am living now and will eventually die at the beginning of the information age.

The irony of all this is that during the previous age, we had (and still have if we’ve saved it) tons of information in the form of hand-written letters, photograph albums, diaries, along with personal libraries of printed books. Now, in the information age, everything is in electronic form, accessible only by using devices. There are few, if any, hand-written letters or family photographs for future archivists to find and treasure. Nothing real, only ‘images.’

The final irony is that we, the human race, should come full circle. We began as hunter gatherers, and we shall end as hunter gatherers, unburdened by possessions, owning next to nothing, only ourselves and our memories.

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