What do we know without the Internet?

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Saturday Night Live last night was fairly boring, and so I don't think you can blame me for falling asleep on the couch. But when the three-wick candle I was burning on the table started to trickle hot wax onto the table and then down onto the rug, you'd think my cat would have had the initiative to wake me up or at least try to put a towel or something around the candle. But, no, miss "no opposable thumbs" just went right on sleeping too. And so this morning when I came downstairs wondering if the exciting events from the night before had actually happened, my cloudy memories were confirmed by the big splotches of dried wax distributed unevenly around the rug. Argh.

My first course of action? It's the same thing I did last fall when I was figuring out how to can tomato sauce I made from my garden. Or when I had questions last spring about how to save the tomato plant seedlings that were looking a little yellow. Or a few years ago when I wanted to learn how to knit. Ask Google what to do. Search keywords: "removing wax candle carpet". TA-DA! Up comes a buffet of various solutions to deal with just my particular predicament, and a few minutes later, I'm ironing the wax out as it is absorbed into a paper grocery bag. You couldn't even tell the wax had been there. It's just like Aunt Bea has passed on her time-tested secret home remedy to me. It's just like I was born and raised on a farm with no electricity, and I know all the solutions to candle-related cleaning and maintenance events. Okay, maybe not quite that impressive.

But what, pray tell, would I have done without Google there to tell me what to do? Given my stubbornness, instead of calling a family member, or asking a neighbor, or consulting some book of home remedies that I don't actually have, I probably would have gone to work on it with an ice pick and sand paper, and rendered that particular rug useless and destroyed. But in theory, we humans are capable of storing and recalling bits of practical knowledge passed on to us by our friends, family, and life experiences, and were I not so stubborn, I probably would have been able to encounter an equally successful remedy by consulting one of those bodies of knowledge.

But Google - and the Web and Internet in general - seems to be changing how we think about such things. And I find myself asking more and more - what do we know without the Internet? There probably isn't a day that goes by that I don't consult some online resource for knowledge that I want or need to apply in my daily life. Thankfully, I still tend to view that practice as a "shortcut" around other approaches for gaining the same knowledge. At least I still know how to read a book, use a library, experiment and observe, call a hotline, learn from others.

But I know I'm getting lazy, and I wonder what part of my humanity slips away every time I rely on this body of knowledge that is "out there", instead of cultivating and building a body of knowledge that is "in here". Indeed, my "day job" with Summersault would mostly entirely go away were it not for the existence of the contrived artificial human creation we know as the Internet. What does that mean about the value of the knowledge I apply every day at that job? Is it so transitory, so tied up with this other entity known as the Internet that I haven't really learned anything useful to pass down or pass along in the larger scale of human existence? Is my abundance of knowledge about how to administer a FreeBSD server or debug a PERL script - and the time I spend learning those things - indicative of passing over other information that I really should be learning?

Or is this just how it works? Is it just a normal evolutionary process in which I am adapting my inherent knowledge and skills to a particular industry, just as my ancestors from days past have done for their favored industries (which may or may not still be around)? Perhaps it is natural when a creature becomes more efficient, building on the knowledge of previous generations without necessarily inheriting or applying that knowledge consciously.

I'm confident - perhaps naively - that were the Internet to disappear today, I could find another line of work and eventually be equally knowledgeable about it. But it seems to me there is a class of knowledge beyond "work stuff" that we humans should have ready access to, without depending on a search engine. It includes things like creating and maintaining a shelter or home of some sort; finding and preparing and storing food; basic care and maintenance of our bodies; and basic communication and relational skills that allow us to interact successfully with each other (including mating and procreative traditions). And then there are the perks that go beyond those basics - how to get dried candle wax out of your carpet, for example.

In the end, it seems there are lines we choose to cross or not cross. Every time a technological advancement comes along that offers us a better way of doing things - and an opportunity to put some aspect of our collective knowledge behind us -- we should ask ourselves if we're really gaining something by doing so, or just continuing to distance ourselves from the traditions and basic knowledge that make us human - or that make us useful and sustainable as a species. It may come down to a matter of interpretation about what it means to be "useful" and to have practical skills in the modern world...or perhaps, more importantly, a larger discussion about whether the modern world and the technologies that come with it are really offering us a "better way of life" at all.

2 thoughts on “What do we know without the Internet?

  1. Another interesting thing about the internet is how it facilitates contact among people that would otherwise be really difficult and unlikely. Admittedly, not everyone maintains a persistent 'web presence' to make themselves easily findable, but I think more and more people are doing so as time goes on. (E.g., I found my old friend and bassist extraordinaire Dan Abbott a few months back through the use of Anywho.com.) I do think people risk losing some humanity, or at least some self-sufficiency, if we count on technology to solve all our problems for us... but the problem of losing track of Dan wasn't one that I knew technology would help solve. (I was still a web-illiterate AOL subscriber when he and I both flamed-out of Earlham.) Similarly, if you're going blame technology for your unpreparedness in the face of a severe candle accident, you'll have to blame Edison's light bulb before you go pointing (waxy) fingers at Google.
    Anyway, I'm grateful to be able to just browse in here and see how things are going with you. Say hi to Damon, if he remembers me -- you can jog his memory with the factoid that his dare, one night in Barrett, was what prompted me to shave my head for the first time.

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