Encyclopedia Brown is Dead

Me Think bout Stuff

You remember that friend, family member, or classmate you had who bragged about being the world’s compendium of worthless or strange knowledge? When it came to math and literature they didn’t have much to share, but if you asked them about Mike the headless chicken they could tell you anything you wanted to know. I knew folks like that over the years. I also know people who retain a lot of information about math and literature. And I grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown, who was lauded as one of the smartest kids in his town, if not on the entire planet. He had knowledge of everything. I respected that boy, and wanted to be like him.

Well, that shit’s over now because Encyclopedia Brown has nothing on an Iphone with a data plan.

I’m not sure whether I should be lamenting this or celebrating it. As a digital immigrant, I remember when memorization was highly valued. Even before the internet the importance of memorization was slowly deteriorating, however, which I remember as a good thing. I didn’t have to memorize countless lines of Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” like my father did. I never understood why he was forced to recite works when he could just flip open a book and read it. I’m starting to now.

Socrates warned us about the dangers of print, and how the advent of such a technology would likely destroy memory. It’s the same thing people worried about when calculators hit the market. Now at the college level there are courses dedicated to learning how to operate a TI-85 calculator. There’s a few ways to think about such a phenomenon. We’re learning how not to do math, or we’re learning how to do math in an entirely different way, with technology as the middle man. Either way, there’s something frightening about using technology in such a way.

The internet is no different. In some ways it renders the human mind a mechanism very similar to a computer itself. The mind is prompted and the computer is used to solicit a viable response, rather than an individual relying on the mind itself. Input is provided and output is derived from a secondary source rather than the primary source. People are just another machine in the virtually endless network that is the internet.

I see it in my classroom, especially the literature courses I teach. I’ll mention a literary figure and some of the tech-savvy diligent students will whip out their smart phones and raise their hands to ask questions and supplement my information with information on Sparknotes or Wikipedia, reminding me that literary expertise comes at the push of a button now instead of a $25,000 college bill. This frustrates me for some reason, but the truth is that on the most basic level the only distinction between the college education I acquired and the information available on the internet is that my information came from people. It was passed down from other sources, but for some reason, when I teach literature I feel like I’m imparting “my” knowledge to the students, whereas they are acquiring the knowledge of others.

Maybe that sentiment isn’t too far off-base. I processed the knowledge handed down to me, critically thought about it, re-shaped it for the function of teaching. The regurgitation process the knowledge underwent when traveling from my professors to me and then to my students entailed a degree of transformation. When students take out their Droids, collect and share information in the classroom, the transformation is not there. The knowledge is acquired out of context. And it is rarely absorbed. One of the components missing in the equation is critical thinking.

Even if computers can or will someday critically think, they will not be able to critically think for us (unless nanobots someday prompt particular neural pathways which lead to critical thought). Scratch that. Moving on.

I’ll always enjoy Encyclopedia Brown, even though the mysteries are a little juvenile for my taste now. But the value of memorization as a functional component of knowledge is decreasing steadily. What needs to be embraced as we move forward is subjectivity, experience, thought, knowledge as a process rather than a product. That’s one of the reasons I’m not going to edit out the contradictions in this blog post. These are all things literary critics and composition theorists have been talking about for decades now. Subjectivity is what keeps discourse alive in literary criticism. It’s also a pain in the ass. Read forty years worth of literary criticism relating to Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and tell me otherwise.

But while subjectivity should ideally become increasingly valued, the reality is that the internet has the potential to lead us down a path of self-imposed segregation. Not segregation of a particular group, but segregation of the self from everything else and everyone else. We live in a disposable society characterized by replaceability. By nature we’re social beings, but we’re also looking for validation, the ability to exalt ourselves above the masses and articulate ourselves as someone unique. Maybe that’s just the American way. I can’t speak for the rest of the world. Anyway, when confronted with the subjective, conflicting opinions of others we don’t have to process them. We can simply uproot and move to another subculture online. We can become itinerants, harvesting the social landscape for validation. We’re geographically delimited online, so when we disagree with our e-neighbors we don’t have to come to terms with it like we do with our local residents. We don’t have to grow in relation to others, and empathy is not a necessary component for continued social interaction online. To sustain a discourse with a single group it is required, but if people interact solely to support the self, I’m not sure if continued, meaningful relationships are always necessary. I see examples of this from time to time as well, but I also can think of examples from before the internet era. I see people just uproot and leave communities, abandon a circle of friends and continue a facade in a new, oblivious group. It’s been going on for centuries. But the internet makes it easier to run from oneself forever.

But we’re all good people, right? So we don’t have to think about this.

My first interview won’t be conducted until next week unfortunately, so I’ll either post a different interview soon with another willing participant or the next post will go up next Saturday.

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