Encyclopedia Britannica vs. World Wide Web
September 24th, 2010

We are becoming a culture of instant informational gratification.  With wireless internet and web-enabled phones around us at all times there is nearly nothing we can’t find out in mere moments.  What won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1968?  Is this a poisonous or edible variety of mushroom growing in my backyard?  What is the third-tallest mountain in the world?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.  But I could find out in less than 30 seconds if I wanted to.  (Except the mushroom one.  I don’t actually have mushrooms growing in my backyard…) My immediate response is that this is a good thing.  It is a good thing that I can answer my own questions quickly, easily, and with a reasonable degree of confidence.  In these situations my costs to learn are very low.  How could anyone ever cast a shadow on fast and free information?

Naturally, someone had to rain on the internet’s parade.  (Poor internet…)  In this article Ben Greenman argues that instantaneous answers perhaps do us a disservice by satisfying our curiosities too easily.  He suggests that when questions go unanswered for a period of time they have the opportunity to fester and grow.  Such questions may even develop into legitimate passions, he argues.

I’ve given Mr. Greenman’s premise some thought over the past few days.  I wanted very much to agree with him.  I wanted to applaud his notion that making things harder makes them more valuable.  I wanted to jump on his bandwagon of belief that things that cost more must be worth more. 

But I just couldn’t do it.  Not with information.  Not with learning.  For the first time in human history we are approaching a place where information is equally available.  The internet gives the same answers to a kid in Kansas as to a kid in Cambridge.  And that is a huge statement.  (I will, for the purposes of this post, conveniently ignore China’s censors of Google.  I’ll keep my rant contained to the domestic.)  Rationing information for our children just because we had to work harder for the same answers (or live without them in many cases) when we were younger doesn’t accomplish a thing.  Not to mention that in my experience a passion must be fed, not starved, in order to flourish. 

In that regard the internet is a magical playland for our passions.  It allows us to dip our toes into something and make an educated decision about whether or not in impassions us.  It allows us to explore new interests until we are bursting with information.  The internet allows us to skim across the surface or dig deep into any topic.  We can meet people who share our passions, but whom we never would have met in the offline world.  Truly, the internet is a veritable petri dish for passions. 

I’m sorry Mr. Greenman, but I call shenanigans on your position.  Your heart, I am sure, is in the right place.  But your logic, I fear, is not.

8 Responses to “Encyclopedia Britannica vs. World Wide Web”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Funny, I’d never thought about it, but I bet the Internet is the death of the Encyclopedia business! I *heart* the www, because it gave me an easy answer just the other day when I was frantically searching for how to catch a rodent escapee…

  2. Laura H. Says:

    I love the internet too and especially having it on my handheld device. But I do believe the internet (and things like digital cameras, cell phones, etc.) is aiding and abetting in the upbringing of a new generation who expect instant gratification, which has its downfalls. I don’t think my children would ever sit for a picture if they couldn’t see it as soon as I took it. When they ask a question that I don’t know the answer to (“why is there stained glass in churches?”) they automatically say, “let’s look it up on the internet.” When they have an interest in something that I think they may not be totally ready to comprehend or appreciate, it’s hard to hold them back (“Mommy, I understand your explanation of how a baby gets out of the mommy’s tummy, but I want to see how that happens. Can we look it up on the internet?”).
    So when my children are grown and they’ve interviewed for a job and they are waiting for a call back, will they be less patient than those of us who grew up when there weren’t even answering machines until we were at least in middle school? Will they ever get lost trying to find their destination (sans GPS) and inadvertently end up discovering the best burger joint in town?
    So I still *heart* the internet, but I’m speculative about how the new instant gratification generation will turn out 20 years from now.

  3. Gale Says:

    Laura H – You raise some interesting points. I hadn’t thought about situations when we, as parents, may intentionally want to withhold information from our kids. I know there were many things I was curious about as a kid, but had no recourse to satisfy my curiosity, which, in retrospect, was good.

    The point you didn’t make explicitly, but alluded to, relates to the idea of skill sets. Patience is (in addition to a virtue) a skill that we develop over time. I have distinct memories of my grandfather telling me on countless occasions throughout my childhood, “Learn to wait.” And he was right – waiting must be learned. (It’s something I’m working hard to teach IEP these days too…) But the thing that I find most interesting about this premise is that the skills sets that you and I have needed, may never be necessary for our kids. Our children will likely never learn how to use a card catalog in a library. The old-fashioned girl inside me thinks that’s sad. But then again, I never learned how to send a telegraph, so I guess it’s not just their generation that is leaving unneeded skills in the past. (Also, just to clarify – I think patience will always be necessary in many circumstances. But not in nearly as many circumstances as it used to be.)

  4. Jane Says:

    I heart the internet, too. LOVE the instant answers, but I also heart the arguments that Laura H. brought up, as well. My boys get exasperated if I’m using my 35mm camera. When the computer takes a teensy bit longer to boot-up my 6 yr. old has been known to bang his fists (I know, we’re working on his patience issues). When I leave the house, without my phone? I panic like I’ve left my right arm on the kitchen counter.

    There is good and bad to all of this amazing technology.

  5. Cathy Says:

    I do think there is value in not having an immediate answer. I find myself working in technology. I can always Google to find an answer, but I learn so much more when I poke around and try to figure it out on my own. I think in terms of education, if a kid can turn to the internet to get their questions answered and be done with it, than I think that speaks more to the poor system than www vs. encyclopedia. I hope this makes sense….it does in my mind!

  6. Erin L. Says:

    I like the internet, but I think that critical thinking has to be taught to use the internet effectively. I can find information, sure, but I can also find a lot of information that is just false. I also like the fact that when I have a question, I can look it up easily. But then my curiousity is piqued and I can easily find more information, instead of just getting frustrated! Thanks for the discussion!

  7. BigLittleWolf Says:

    If the Internet is not the Great Equalizer, it certainly comes close. Like you, I love having access to whet my appetite for real learning, or simply to satisfy curiosity.

    The medium for information delivery doesn’t change my desire to dig deeper or properly research. Nor does it alter my love of books (witness if you will the 14 stacks on my bedroom floor – overflow to the shelves in this room alone).

    Often, the internet will steer me to a book, in fact. Mighty convenient tool in that regard. As for learning – actual retention – I cannot comment. My sons are teens and use both online and printed sources to learn – textual, visual, and video (online). As for myself, I do the same.

    It will be interesting to see how all this pans out, with real study and analysis.

  8. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    Hmmm…I think I have to agree with Mr. Greenman at least a little, even though I haven’t read his article yet. Sometimes I fear that with all that information floating around our heads at any given moment, it becomes difficult to focus. To really dig DEEP. I can’t say that because I’ve looked up a random factoid on IMBD that I’ve really LEARNED much…I don’t consider it learning in the same way that reading or having a discussion produces learning. I’m often really annoyed when I ask a hypothetical question, and instead of someone talking about it, they immediately reach for their iphone. Sure, I like having movie times at the tips of my fingers instead of calling the theater. And I think it’s exciting to satisfy curiosity…because goodness knows there is MUCH that makes me curious. So while I imagine you, BLW, and many others in this world will continue to read and digest information, I don’t think that desire and commitment to learn is enhanced by the internet.

    And sometimes…I just like to wonder. To try and recall information. To think without having the answer. To me, learning is not just the process of obtaining information.