Instant Education

Among the “non-essentials” upon which I spend my earnings, books hold the top spot, if not in value, certainly in quantity. Reading is more than a pass-time—it is perhaps the most basic aspect of who I am. I love books. While reading a New Jersey Star-Ledger piece by Allan Hoffman entitled “Learning by the book,” however, an uncomfortable truth dawned on me. Hoffman gently laments that the search for information has gone almost wholly electronic. As a person who currently works in the book industry, I know he’s right. More than that, I know it from my own life. I can’t remember the last time I opened a phone book, other than to retrieve a pressed leaf I’d inserted between its pages for pressing. If some bit of information about a religion or a biblical passage escapes my distracted brain, a few keystrokes work better than shuffling to the shelf, pulling off the reference books, and thumbing through until I find the datum. No, we are all addicted to speed.

Despite the best effort of Google books, much material necessary for research in many subjects remains sequestered in actual books. The problem is, for contemporary knowledge, book production is slow. In my editorial work, and as an erstwhile author, I know that the five years I spend researching and writing a book, the submission time to a publisher, the eventual decision, and then the year or longer production time, all equate to immediate obsolescence. Any non-fiction book is outdated by the internet even before it is shipped from the warehouse. New truths are born at the speed of light while books take years to make. I agree, Mr. Hoffman, we’ve lost something in our idolatry of the instant knowledge. If you need urgent info (What do I do about a snake bite? Where is the nearest Starbucks?) the internet is your up-to-date databank.

I have long known that the study of religions is often the study of texts (most of which are online now). Believing some ancients knew more about the ultimate realities of life than we do, either by dint of divinity or enlightenment, we search the texts about them or by them in hopes of joining them in a knowledge beyond knowing. Now in the age of the internet, new messiahs arise almost daily, proclaiming their truths across the world-wide web of wisdom. I have a feeling there is a dissertation or two in there. Of course, it will take a few years before you’ll see them in print.

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Lessons from Sandy

While many are still without power and school is cancelled for an unprecedented sixth day in a row, the eastern Mid-Atlantic states are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. As I noted in my first post-storm blog post, one of the largest disorientations I experienced was being cut off from the internet. An article in Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger gives a name to this phenomenon: “nomophobia,” the fear of being left without access to an internet-connected device (specifically a mobile device, but in a pinch even a desktop will do). An article by Allan Hoffman suggests that two-thirds of the population suffers from nomophobia and that there are actual treatment programs available. A decade ago no such phobia existed and some of us were only just beginning to hear about the World Wide Web. This is a fear born of our own engineering—the virtual world of our making has come to haunt us.

No doubt life is somewhat easier with the internet. One word will suffice to illustrate it: phonebook. When is the last time I looked something up in a phonebook? While pulling open a drawer beneath the accumulated phonebooks on the phone stand, I noticed how thick with dust they were. Even the cordless phone with its answering machine appeared just a little bit medieval to my cyber eyes. If this is evolution, we may be in trouble. Technology was envisioned as the liberator from labor, but we’ve clearly become its slaves. Don’t worry about the food spoiling in the refrigerator, get me back onto Facebook—now! My smartphone has a flashlight, several email apps, and can soothe me with its music. It is my rod and staff.

On a short drive to run an errand this weekend, I went by one of the few stores with power in the area. Their electronic marquee read “cell phones charged here.” The greatest service that could be offered to a cold, hungry population living in the dark.

One of the hallmarks said to have ended the Dark Ages was the printing press. Literature, on paper, could now be spread (mostly in the form of the Bible) from person to person until all of Europe would have access to sacred knowledge. That knowledge (and a great deal of nonsense) is now worshipfully cupped in the palm of my hand. As Hoffman notes, even the librarians were telling patrons not where to find books, but where to locate outlets. Robots fight our wars remotely, and wireless networks link us in a web far more valuable than that of the silk moth. And we have realized that even the creator of an entire universe can be held in a child’s hand.

In the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear