Coleman / Turning down the volumes is making us stupid

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“LOOK it up in your Funk and Wagnalls!” It was a line that brought great merriment to children who thought they were being clever and slightly dirty at the same time.

Sadly, the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia is no more. Killed by the internet, along with the printed version of “Encyclopedia Britannica” and several other similar repositories of information.

Chris Coleman
Chris Coleman.

It’s possible that I’m being a little over-critical here as, at the time of writing, I am still awaiting the final piece of the puzzle that will connect my home to the web. A saga that has gone on for far longer than it should have (readers may recall my column of February 9), but a saga that has made me much more discerning in my use of my limited and expensive mobile internet data.

I’m sure anyone who is old enough to remember the days of hunting through 20-plus heavy books of information to find something useful for a school project doesn’t have any great sympathy for these now-defunct volumes, but have you realised what has happened to us as a species since then? It’s either making us stupid or lazy or perhaps both.

You may think I’m referring to the quality of the information on the web (that’s a conversation for another day), but today let’s focus on quantity.

The internet does make more information available to more people than ever before. And, for a while, it seemed this was increasing learning, but (stay with me here) there’s an increasing trend for people to use the internet to get other people to find other information that’s already on the internet.

If you’re a social media user, you may have already noticed this trend on your Facebook or Twitter. People asking other people what time a movie starts. Or whether a particular sporting event is being shown on TV. Not in a conversational sense, not as an “okay, we’ve decided what movie we’re going to, anyone know when it starts?”, but as a genuine enquiry, often from out of nowhere, which would have been more quickly and directly solved by typing the exact same question into Google.

The other thing we have lost is the additional information you’d glean from an encyclopedia while searching for your actual information.

For example, while looking up “Carolina” in a multi-volume set, you may have glimpsed articles en route about Camouflage “discussed by Aristotle in ancient Greece” and Carob, “often a replacement for chocolate”. It was being easily distracted by stuff like this that made me far better at trivia nights than in school exams.

Maybe the world needs a cyber equivalent of “Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls”? Could one of the second-tier search engines hidden in Google’s shadow (Bing, or Yahoo!) revive the defunct encyclopedia’s catchphrase for just such a purpose.*

Or maybe we could all take the time before asking something on the internet, if the internet actually has what we’re after somewhere else…

*Those search engines still exist. I’ve saved you the effort of looking them up. Don’t thank me. Or feel the need to point out the irony.

Chris Coleman presents Drive on 2CC.

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