Monday, June 13, 2011

knowing vs. Knowing

"Hold on, let me Wikipedia it."

I cringe every time I say those words, much like when I use "Google" or "Facebook" as a verb. At least Twitter had the decency to come up with a verb form of its name.

In a recent post by The Awl, the question of the existence of "the expert" was posited: with knowledge at our fingertips with the click of a button on our laptops and smartphones, are "experts" really needed anymore? And why do we take what we read on Wikipedia as fact? After all, can't anybody edit a Wikipedia page? (Answer: this is one very well monitored website.) In the past, learning took effort. Research. Drive. Now, we can "learn" as we multitask or procrastinate in our homes. You can go from page to page to page, soaking up knowledge and spewing it back to eager ears. We speak as if we are the experts: "Sure, I know who won the 1906 French Grand Prix" or "You mean you don't know who Stanley Green was? Well, let me tell you."
"Learning" no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet, now grown into a medium of almost infinite paths, where "learning" means that you can Twitter directly to people in Egypt to ask them what they really think about ElBaradei (and get answers), ask an author or critic to address a point you feel he may have missed (ditto), or share your own insights in countless forums where they will be read and admired (and/or savaged.) Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.
Sounds like a positive thing, right? But when you think about it, the idea of "knowledge" is being redefined. We rarely draw conclusions based on various sources; we now have the option to settle for reading one Wikipedia entry and deciding for ourselves what is fact--and in any case, one Wikipedia entry tends to draw from multiple sources anyways, so why should we feel bad? Wikipedia sorted out what we "should" know so we don't have to.

I remember elementary school days spent in libraries and pouring over volumes of encyclopedias to learn about sea otters or Indiana. Putting together a report involved checking out stacks of books and photocopying pages or TL;DR entries. But nowadays, there is less of a need for that process. In high school, teachers would require we had at least two or three physical books as sources; in college, nobody cared, as long as you don't plagiarize.

And it isn't like there's a solution to force students to re-learn how to "think critically" and for themselves. Banning Wikipedia in classrooms does no good because nobody is stupid enough to cite Wikipedia as a source (at least, I'd hope not). Similar to what CliffNotes and SparkNotes did to fiction, Wikipedia is essentially taking volumes of research that took its writers/editors an extensive amount of time to compile and shrinking them onto an easy-to-search webpage. The Awl article points out that it strips "authorship" and "individuality" away from original research, criticism, etc. Hell, it's what the OC Weekly does to journalism. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

This just seems to be the way the world is heading, and all I/we can do is comment and consider weaning ourselves off of our Internet dependency. Besides, learning and intellectual conversations are much more stimulating when you actually know what you're talking about, and not just regurgitating it with little understanding.