Wherever you go these days, you are within seconds of every piece of information that exists. Winner of Super Bowl XXII? Easy. Washington Redskins over the Denver Broncos, Final Score: 42-10.
Bill Tilden, Wimbledon champion, 1921 – Library of congress
Champion at Wimbledon, 1921? Men’s or woman’s champ? Ok, Suzanne Lenglen. (If you were any kind of tennis fan, you could probably have guessed the men’s champ, Bill Tilden, without resorting to Google.)
‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ – William Shakespeare, Henry V – St. Crispin’s Day speech.
Now, on the surface that looks like a VERY GOOD THING. Every one with a computer, iphone, or Blackberry has an opportunity to find and verify facts with an exactitude and range simply unfathomable a generation ago.
The question becomes: with so much data now residing “in the cloud” instead of “in our brains”, what use are making of the bandwidth freed up from such drudgery as memorization of facts? Are we smarter, quicker thinkers, capable of vaster abstractions and able to deal with greater levels of complexity? Or are we outsourcing our brains and our very souls to digital devices and Wikipedia?
I would argue that something has been gained, and something has been lost: namely the treasure of lore, poetry and Bible verses that we used to carry around between our ears, in our heads. Has the unlimited availability of information, instantly, 24/7 made obsolete, once and for all the role of rote memorization in learning? Or was there some other value that we are in danger of losing?
It is one thing to look up “Rudyard Kipling and if” in Google and instantly call up that brawny, late colonial ode to simple manliness, another to spend the time to learn it off by heart, and to make it a part of you.
Prisoners of war would while away hours of their endless free time remembering poetry or Bible verses that they had reluctantly learned in grade school, Sunday school class or church. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Jews in unspeakable agony and distress at Dachau and Treblinka remembered the Torah that they had internalized as young Yeshiva students: “Hear oh Israel: the Lord our God is the one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” Words to live by and noble enough to die by.
So, take away the iphones, the ipods, the laptops and what would do you do with the remaining solitude? Without the resources of music, etc. “out there in the cloud”, always available on the digital device of our choice, what remains in your head? Without the boring drudgery of memorization once endured routinely as kids, what’s left but a pile of disjointed, half remembered intellectual detritus, the remainders of imperfectly digested knowledge? Hey, I’m just asking.