Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the dilemma of being old in the internet age.
Philip Greenspun, an MIT software engineer and hi-tech guru, argues in a recent blog post that “technology reduces the value of old people.” It’s not that old people don’t do technology. On the contrary, many of them are heavy users of computers and cell phones. It’s that the young won’t bother tapping the knowledge of their elders because they can get so much more, so much faster, from Wikipedia and Google.
It was adults, not the young, who invented computers, programmed them, and created the internet. OK, maybe not old adults, in some cases maybe not even old-enough-to-buy-beer adults, but adults nonetheless. Plus, the over-35 set is Facebook‘s fastest growing demographic.
Even so, despite starting the computer revolution, and despite their presence on the World Wide Web today, the old are fast becoming irrelevant. According to Greenspun, “An old person will know more than a young person, but can any person, young or old, know as much as Google and Wikipedia? Why would a young person ask an elder the answer to a fact question that can be solved authoritatively in 10 seconds with a Web search?”
Why indeed? With knowledge located deep in Google’s server farms instead of in the collective memories of senior citizens, the old today are fast becoming useless. Might as well put them out on the ice floe and let them float off to whatever comes next.
According to the federal government, which is never wrong about these things, I myself became officially old, and therefore useless as a repository of wisdom and memory, last Spring. But I’m not worried about being put out to sea on an ice floe, because thanks to global warming, the ice is melting so fast that it poses no danger. There’s not even enough ice out there to sink another Titanic, though if someone built a new Titanic people wouldn’t sail on it because it probably wouldn’t have free wi-fi.
I found out all I know about global warming and the shrinking ice caps and even the Titanic not from that well-known American elder, Al Gore, but from Wikipedia. Wikipedia also told me that Al Gore, who is no spring chicken, invented the internet. I learned from Google that there was no free wi-fi before the internet, and no such thing as a free lunch.
Socrates once warned that our increased reliance on writing would weaken human memory — everything we’d need to remember would be stored in documents, not brain cells, so instead of remembering stuff, we could just look it up. Socrates knew all about brain cells, of course, because he looked that up in a Greek encyclopedia (he didn’t use the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because he couldn’t read English). And just as he predicted, Socrates, who was no spring chicken, had to look up brain cells again a week later, because he forgot what it said.
2,400 years have passed since Socrates drank hemlock — that was his fellow Athenians’ way of putting an irrelevant old man out to sea — but it looks like our current dependence on computers is rendering old people’s memories irrelevant once again. And that’s probably a good thing, because as Socrates learned the hard way, old people’s memories are notoriously unreliable, which is why Al Gore, who foresaw that this would happen, also invented sticky notes.
David’s “The Death of Socrates.” We remember the Greek philosopher’s critique of writing because his student Plato wrote it down on sticky notes.
Like old people, old elephants are also no longer necessary. Elephants became an endangered species not because hunters killed them for the ivory in their tusks but because now that we have computers, no one cared that an elephant never forgets. Technology reduced the value of elephants, and so the elephants just wandered off to the elephants’ burial ground to wait for whatever comes next. And also because the elephants’ burial ground has free wi-fi.
Unlike elephants and people, computers never forget, so we can rest assured that the value of computers will never be reduced. Unlike fallible life-form-based memory banks, computers preserve their information forever, regardless of disk crashes, magnetic fields, coffee spills on keyboards, or inept users who accidentally erase an important file.
And there’s no need to throw out your 5.25″ floppies, laser disks, minidisks, Betamax, 8-track, flash drives, or DVDs just because some new digital medium becomes popular, because unlike writing on clay, stone, silk, papyrus, vellum, parchment, newsprint, or 100% rag bond paper, all computerized information is always forward-compatible with any upgrades or innovations that come along.
Plus all the information stored in computer clouds is totally reliable and always available, except of course for those pesky T-Mobile Sidekick phones whose data somehow disappeared. Assuming the cable’s not down, Google invariably shows us exactly what we’re looking for, or something that’s at least close enough to it, and Wikipedia is never wrong, ever. That’s because the information on Google and Wikipedia is put there by robots, or maybe intelligent life forms from outer space, not by people of a certain age who have to write stuff down on stickies, just as Socrates did, so they don’t forget it.
And now that I don’t have to remember all that lore that elders were once responsible for, my brain cells have been freed up to do other important stuff, like spending lots more time online looking for the meaning of life and what comes next, assuming there’s free wi-fi at the coffee shop.