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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Britannica Lost

An original Britannic volume from Wired.
I recently read the the Encyclopedia Britannica was no longer being "printed."

As parents we purchased a copy when our children were small, probably around 1983.  I recall that we had seen a kiosk or person in a mall offering to come and give a pitch on them.  At that time we were avid library users and it seemed like it would be a good thing to have given there were four children to raise.

The salesman showed up and "demoed" the books - nice bindings, fancy "extras" of various sources like so many "custom research" efforts they would do for you, that sort of thing.  The price was probably around $1,500 USD (about $3,500 USD today), i.e., a lot of money.

You purchased them on "credit" in those days with some sort of standard credit "deal" offered by the salesman.

The books themselves were wonderful and lived up to their reputation.  Since this was the early 1980's there was no "equivalent" in the computer world save for "Plato" which was beyond the reach of a person to access outside a University. 

There was no Wikipedea, no Encarta, no PC, no Windows.

The encyclopedias were only a moderate success at home - they were very information-dense and not very suitable for kids.  As adults we used them - but only occasionally.

My parents had purchased a set of "Worldbook" encyclopedias during my childhood.  These were, I think, less "dense" and more accessible to children.  They also had a corresponding and lighter "children's set."

Had we known what was coming with computers I suppose we would not have bothered purchasing anything like this at all...

In any case today everyone trumpets the wonder of Wikipedia.  Unfortunately, Wikipedia, at least to me, is a sad joke as far as being an "encyclopedia."


There are a couple of reasons.  First off the content is basically dynamic because anyone at any time "blessed" by Wikipedia can make an update.  Who are these people?  Young, liberally-minded folks with too much spare time.

(If you don't believe me just read their profiles which appear whenever Wikipedia needs money.)

They are also susceptible to significant bias.  There are a variety of cases where there are "wars" over how a particular entry should be written or "phrased." Back-and-forth edits over days or weeks changing things from one point of view to another.

Personally Wikipedia is the first place to go when you need something like Madonna's birth date or who was the bass player in Genesis.

Its also good when you know nothing about, for example, the difference between how jai alai is played or pronounced in different parts of the world.

What I find interesting is how quickly one can simply "forget" about books today.  Encyclopedia's existed all throughout my life - at my grandmothers, my parents and my own house.  Today my grandchildren have little interest in books especially since school and virtually everything else is delivered by wireless video.

Wikipedia does not and cannot, for example, cannot capture the physical wonder of something like Richard Feynman's "Lecture's on Physics."  Basic physical laws and the mathematics that model them have been around for a long time and this set of books does well at capturing them.

This is also very hard material - and you need to re-read it quite a bit to really grasp much of what's being said, particularly in the lectures on quantum mechanics.

I also don't want some youngster messing about with the wording Feynman chose making it "more modern."

I think the study of hard subjects "off line" is a lot less distracting as well.  No bouncing women offering discounts on mortgages or weight loss while you're trying to sort our matrices and physics.

Of course I have iPads and Kindle software but, as I have mentioned before, these things mess up indices, tables of contents, and page numbering so that, at least for reference works, using them in that format is a drag.

I also don't like the tiny screens and the constant zooming required to view something like a full magazine page.

To me there was and still is art and value in layout out something complex in such a way as to assist in making it comprehensible.

For example, Feynman's lectures in on very large pages, probably close to 17" diagonally.  There are notes and various other aids in the margins.  I think this helps with the understanding.

I cannot say how often I would like to view things on a dual 17" MacBook Pro "book" (think a 17" inch MacBook Pro with two screens - the second replacing the keyboard).

I think the small screens (and I cannot even imagine reading a book on, for example, an iPhone) take away too much "context."  For reading a novel its okay - but not anything technical.

So what does this all mean?

I think that "our generation" - whatever that is - will be taking from our children millenia of optimization and skill in recording, delivering and documenting history and science with writing.

And while there is nothing wrong with computers as reading devices per se things like the loss of context and the distraction of dancing mortgage girls are actually making the learning harder and/or making the resulting knowledge more "fragmented" in some way.

Wikipedia becomes the "everyman" standard for a low-end, Encarta-like encyclopedia - which makes anyone using it without the context of the past think - wow - this is all there is.  And because of the lack of interest in books there is only "what's available on the internet" and nothing else.

All things considered I think that this "on line" knowledge only servers to "slow down" serious education and knowledge transfer.

Of course superficially it seems like an improvement - easy and quick access for everyone.

But to what exactly? 

A social consensus on jai alai?

Many people today think that if it doesn't come up on Google it simply doesn't exist.

They have forgotten or don't even know about millenia of scholarly works.

Which means that all of man's efforts up to the point of Google will simply fall away as "lost knowledge."  And this is perhaps the most troubling.

I read on producers of music today think of consumers - they listen to thirty seconds of "song" at a time for whatever reason - boredom I suppose.  Now we have "knowledge acquisition" thirty seconds at a time; but for many things this simply doesn't work.

I see this reflected today in business.  Individuals so narrowly focuses that they cannot make useful decisions.

I am not sure if this is progress.

My own feet are in both worlds - books and "internet."  But I am old.

My own children's feet fall firmly in the "internet and video" worlds - even though their youth was steeped in reading.

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