Wikipedia, wikipedia: Oh, how we need ya

(07-Nov-08)

     We humans are strange in many ways. Only the other day, for instance, I was watching television. Crazy, eh?
     All our strangeness, however, can be traced back to our willingness to forego practicality for spiritual or physical enjoyment. We are the most superstitious and ritualistic of beings, deriving pleasure from common fears, goals and experiences. We have invented weird and wonderful things to do with food where the final energy intake in no way justifies the effort expended. We have converted the simple ingestion of nutrients into a social exercise and the act of procreation into a recreational and romantic one. We spend valuable time expressing our emotions and admiring those who can do it with more honesty or skill than ourselves.
     And while some of these attributes may be shared by various animals, no other creature lives for enjoyment the way we do. Survival – the simple struggle to carry on living – is no longer a challenge for us. We’ve moved on to level 2. We’re so good at the game that we have to invent challenges for ourselves just to make it worth playing. We form pointless, wasteful, tiresome, irritating and entirely wonderful emotional attachments to people and to things. We are the most rational of animals and yet simultaneously the only creatures who can afford to live for non-practical goals. This is the dichotomy that sums us up.
     Take Kindle – Amazon’s new £360 wireless reading device, for instance. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s a wonderful invention. And I could probably cajole a relative into buying it for me for my generic-non-faith-specific winterval holiday later this year. Staggeringly innovative as it is, though, I don’t want one. In this, as in so much else, I am precisely that pipe-smoking colonial major with a roaring fire in his darkened, oak-panelled study who, with a red velvet smoking hat on his whitened hair and a snifter of brandy in his hand, loudly and imperiously damns those newfangled technowhatsits. I am now channelling the worst of hidebound, anachronistic, misplaced nostalgia. But I’m doing it to make sure none of you feels a need to.
     So here I sit, militarized, mustachioed and monocled, adamantly saying that I will never give up my books for an electronic reader.
     It’s not that I don’t recognize and appreciate its stunning practicality. I’m sure such a machine will be more portable, convenient and easier to read than my paperback or hardbound copies. It’s just not a question of logic or of weighing up pros and cons. I am a weak, fickle, emotion-driven human being, and I make weak, fickle, emotion-driven, human decisions. Young as I am, I have already spent enough time floating around libraries and second-hand bookstores to know I’ll never be able to break that emotional attachment. In the same way my grandfather point blank refuses to see the advantages of high-speed internet, word processing software or, you know, a keyboard, I equally stubbornly cling to my precious collection of yellowing paper, cardboard and leather. Until you can get a piece of gadgetry to smell of old glue, crack loudly when you open it for the first time, have dust accumulate on its spine or deteriorate in that delightful, inevitable way that books do, I will remain proud and colonial in my study. At least it has books lining the walls.
     It occurs to me that we are the last generation who will be able to remember a time when ignorance was acceptable. To channel Donald Rumsfeld, that sublime footnote to history, ‘there will be a time when we will look back and remember a time when we could still remember things we’d forgotten’. In normalspeak, we will be able to recall the last days when the World Book of Knowledge had any relevance. When the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the first port of call for those seeking random trivia. Those 30 beautiful blue volumes that contained within them the store of all information anyone needed to know before 2001.
     And then, suddenly, along came Jimmy Wales. And wikipedia made an entrance into our lives. Now, true, it’s wonderful to be able to find out the intricacies of the Namamuga incident, where a British merchant was killed for refusing to show subservience to a Japanese daimyo; to discover the exact nature of the foreign policy relationship Palau has with the United States; the names given to various nought-to-infinity integrals; or the list of Rwandan presidents at the click of a button. But taking a heavy, cobalt-blue tome off the shelf and leafing through it, before discovering that you’d taken the wrong volume and in fact needed the index and a kindly adult to explain the difference between micropaedia and macropaedia and interpret the unusual cross-referencing notation used by the Britannica editors had a great deal of romance associated with it.
     Before wikipedia, seeking information was something almost glamorous. An elitist adventure. Now it has become a populist commercialized pilgrimage. The spirit of the ‘49 gold rush has gradually morphed into the motivation behind a family trip to Disneyland.
     It takes time to get used to. I don’t know about you, but I liked getting my information from a world-renonwed expert on a subject, printed on almost transparently thin sheets of paper with a gold border, rather than having it instantaneously revealed to me in leetspeak by some spotty teenager in Minnesota with the handle Optimus413lolz.
     But – and there is no possible way I can emphasize that But to the proportions it deserves – this is the spirit that flooded out of the printing presses at Mainz in 1452. These are the ideals that prompted Luther to nail his 95 theses to the church door in Wittemberg in 1546. Knowledge belongs to the people, and the most romantic thing about it is being able to spread it to the world. Books were nice, vellum must have been remarkable, papyri and stone tablets were probably infinitely more attractive. We move on, and we gradually lose our reliance on the technologies of preceding generations. The only thing stopping us is sentimentality and emotion. Try as we like to to get rid of these irritatingly fluffy aspects of our characters, they won’t go away. All we can do is hope our children have as little patience for our nostalgia as we have for that of our parents. And believe me, they will.
     Today, anyone can access whatever information they want to, whenever they want to, in the easiest possible way. That is amazing in itself, but it needs the new 21st Century mindset to appreciate. And I love it – of course I do – but you can’t expect a cantankerous ex-Army empire-builder to be dragged into the 21st Century without a good deal of kicking and screaming. Not when there’s half a pint of brandy inside him.

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