21 October 2008

You know that it would be untrue

Last night as we sat down to enjoy a delicious bowl of noodles that she had prepared for dinner, The Very Understanding Girlfriend asked me when was fire first used. I had a momentary feeling of deja vu, because the situation mirrored a conversation I had a few years ago with Vint Cerf.

A small group of us were having coffee and talking about the impact of the internet on daily life. I suggested that just as the calculator had taken away our ability to add, and word processors had destroyed our ability to spell, having instant access to the world's information would ultimately make us less intelligent as we would no longer be required to do basic research. When you switch on a television, you don't think about all the processes that are necessary to make the magic picture appear, you just accept that the pictures appear and that's good enough for most people. I suggested that instant-on knowledge provides answers but not understanding, and would lead to a superficial society where everyone knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Naturally, as the architect of the deliverer of instant-on knowledge, Vint disagreed. He recounted a recent dinner he had with his family where someone asked when covered wagons roamed across a particular state. He said that before the internet the conversation would have died as no-one at the table knew the answer, but thanks to his wireless network he was able to look up the answer immediately, and the associated information in the article took the conversation in a completely unexpected direction. Freed from the need to actually research the answer, his dinner time conversation blossomed and moved somewhere new and unpredicted.

Although I too have a wireless network and a plethora of handheld devices, I took the novel decision not to look it up on the internets, and instead went to the bookshelf and took down a copy of 'The Human Past', an archaeology textbook that I picked up as a reference book last year. Umberto Eco suggests that the purpose of a personal library is not to display all that you have read, rather it should serve both as a collection of books for future reference and as a constant reminder of all that you do not know. My library continues to simultaneously grow and remind me that I am but a man, and thus 'The Human Past' has been nestling on its shelf waiting for a moment such as this to leap into my hands and provide me with all the information that I have been yearning for.

But why did I choose print over net? Because I wanted an authoritative answer, well researched and peer reviewed. A quick online search this morning on "when was fire first used" produces a myriad of answers, mostly associated with wikipedia, wikianswers or Yahoo answers, and almost all of them wrong (the search produces answers ranging from "up my butt" to "sarah palin" on the first page of results, not exactly that helpful or definitive). The problem with the internet is that the cult of the amateur coupled with the desire to make money buries most accurate information under a landslide of spammy made-for-ads sites and andy warhols looking for their 15 minutes of internet fame.

The danger of this is that studies show only a minority of people ever look beyond the first page of search results, thus our innate laziness will inevitably lead to us accepting the first answer that comes along, without questioning its accuracy, and our collective knowledge as a society will suffer as a result. A consistent concern I hear from educators is the use of webpages as references in papers submitted by their students, even at college level. There is no distinction in their minds between print and web, and whichever medium produces the fastest results and allows them to write their paper with the minimum of effort will win every time.

So basically guns don't kill people, people's willingness to use guns kills people. The internet itself won't make everyone stupid, but the blind acceptance of information presented online caused by an inherent laziness and unwillingness to put any effort into actual research will lead to an inevitable decrease in the collective knowledge of mankind.

Oh, and if anyone is actually interested, the oldest evidence for the use of fire may be in baked earth deposits dated 1.4 -1.5 million years ago at Koobi Fora and Chesowanji in Kenya, but naturally occurring brush fires may have produced the same effect. Because most early hominin life occurred in the open air, little evidence of their lifestyles remains. It was only as hominim moved into caves that evidence is preserved, as in Swartkans Cave in South Africa used by Homo ergaster and dated to around 1.5 million years ago. The oldest generaly accepted evidence comes from the Zhoukoudian Homo erectus site in China, dated between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago, and not Sarah Palin or up my butt, as suggested by the internet.


At 5:51 pm, Blogger tpy said...

Sorry, Unkie Davie. I would have accepted your argument and your claims about the first use of fire, but I read them on the internet.

Question: If I print your blog post onto a paper hard copy, can I believe it then?

At 6:16 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

As you suggest, and drawing upon the work of Mason Locke Weems, for any non-verbal argument to be true, there must be some destruction of a tree involved. For you to accept my blog post, you must go into a forest and chop down your father's cherry tree; only then can you quote from it in an academic paper.


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