Friday, February 26, 2010

Life Before Search Engines?

Life before search engines?  Especially, life before search engines that are easily accessed via mobile devices?  I vaguely remember it, yes.  Maybe you went to the library to look something up.  Maybe you had books of your own that you could look through to find the answer.   I remember as a kid being really impressed with the Almanac, especially the one called Information Please!  

And of course there was the old encyclopedia.  Typically,  parents were guilted into buying a set for their kids--don't you want them to succeed in school?  Now we have wikipedia, of course, but in a larger sense, the web itself is our encyclopedia, encompassing all knowledge.

But what if you didn't have any reference works handy?  How many questions went unanswered, for want of a search engine?  That's the point of this cool cartoon that one of my MySpace friends recently shared with me.

Notice how the contrast here is between search engines and television, aka the boob tube.  And yes, the point is a good one, television numbs the mind, to an extent, while the internet promotes active engagement, to an extent.  So maybe our cartoon couch potatoes have some reference works nearby, and are just too mesmerized by the old cathode ray tube (life before LED) to get up and look for answers.

But, of course, another option available to them, and the only option before there were books, before printing, before literacy, before writing, was simply to ask the person next to you.  Ask and ye shall receive...  Of course, what you receive might be something like, I don't know... or a wrong answer.  You never know what you're going to get (kinda like Forest Gump's box of chocolates).  But that's how we did it, through speech, oral communication, relying on memory, knowledge being what's inside our heads--as Walter Ong puts it, you know what you can recall.

And if the question is put to more than one person, you might wind up with a difference of opinion on what the answer is.   The result might then be argument, in the sense of debate and disputation, at least discussion and dialogue.  And it may well be that that organic process of human communication is itself more valuable, in regard to learning and understanding, than the mechanical process of obtaining the answer itself.  Not always, but often, I would wager.

Speaking of wagering, this is where the famous phenomenon of the bar bet comes in.  A bar is of course a social situation, and alcohol a social lubricant.  People get to talking, and sometimes get argumentative.  Two people disagreeing may turn to a third, and say, hey buddy, settle a bet for us.  Often, the person they turn to may be the bartender, who is still sober, or relatively so.  Given the frequency with which this sort of situation might come up, bartenders often had a copy of the latest almanac handy, not to mention the Guinness Book of World Records.

Speaking of which, I just googled it, and it turns out that it's now just called Guinness World Records, and although a book is still published annually, it's also a website (another sign of the decline of print media, sigh).  According to its wikipedia entry, "the book itself held a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted series of all-time. It is also one of the most stolen books from public libraries in the United States." The history of this book is also quite interesting, so once again I'm going to quote from the Wikipedia entry:

On 4 May 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, then the managing director of the Guinness Breweries, went on a shooting party in North Slob, by the River Slaney in County Wexford, Ireland. He became involved in an argument over which was the fastest game bird in Europe, the koshin golden plover or the grouse. That evening at Castlebridge House he realised that it was impossible to confirm in reference books whether or not the golden plover was Europe's fastest game bird.

Now, I just can't help but interject that, with this quote, this post has become related to, in an offhand way, my earlier post, Be Very Afraid. Just saying...  Anyway, back to the entry:

Beaver knew that there must be numerous other questions debated nightly in pubs in Britain and Ireland, but there was no book with which to settle arguments about records. He realised then that a book supplying the answers to this sort of question might prove popular.
Beaver’s idea became reality when Guinness employee Christopher Chataway recommended student twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had been running a fact-finding agency in London. The brothers were commissioned to compile what became The Guinness Book of Records in August 1954. One thousand copies were printed and given away.
The first edition was published in 1955, and soon became an annual.  Today, they're no longer associated with Guinness Brewery, in fact, believe it or not, they're owned by Ripley Entertainment.  But it is interesting to note the connection between the beverage and the book, and to recall that bars and beer are social media of the non-electric variety.

And what becomes of the bar bet when answers are just a google search away?  What becomes of the process of argumentation, and the social search for information, please, from others at the bar?  It seems to me that, in our search for quick and easy answers, we've lost something much more valuable, that we're the poorer for trading information for interaction, in this instance.  The questions are more valuable than the answers, the process more than the outcome, the journey more than the destination.  Again, not always, but more often than not.

So anyway, nostalgia aside, here's my nod to Guinness as food for thought!

Why yes, yes I am.  In fact, being snowed in today, I think I'd like one.  Time to get the old human search engine going, and do some googling around in my fridge, I know I have a few bottles left in there somewhere...  Ah, there we go...  Here's to life before search engines, those were the days...

1 comment:

Robert Berkman said...

Very interesting post Lance. It reminds me of a quote I read some time ago from a professor who lamented the "decline of mystery" in our lives...What does it mean when we feel the "answer" is always just a click and a few seconds away...

But of course the really big mysteries of life have yet to be solved...which reminds me of another quote that I like: "Live is a Mystery to be Lived, not a Riddle to be Answered"

Take that Google!