What the internet doesn’t know.
At the risk of sounding like one of my parents, I remember when the internet happened. It was 1995. I was two weeks into my first year of university. The hangover from week one was starting to wear off, and I was getting acquainted with the library, when a librarian explained that my login wouldn’t just enable me to use a computer or search the library catalogue, I could send an email. “An email?” I asked, with a long, rising inflection that made very clear I didn’t know what it was, nor was I even sure I could find my way to the end of the word. “An email,” repeated the librarian with the breezy confidence of someone who not only knows the whole word, but has known it for sometime, knows what it means and probably even uses it. Whatever it is. “It stands for Electronic Mail. It’s like sending letters anywhere in the world instantly.” “Uh-huh.” “It’s part of the world wide web.” “Yep. It’ll never catch on. Thanks anyway.” That, for those of you who don’t have a calendar app handy, was 21 years ago. I’ve now lived more of my life with the internet than without it. But because I knew life before we all plugged in, I have enough perspective to stop, pull my head out of my Twitter feed and say that what the internet has done to the world is incredible. You can land in a foreign country you’ve never before visited, and use your phone as a detailed map, translator, and digital archiver for the trip. You can search the entire world for a replacement blade for a blender (yes, I’ve actually done this) and have it delivered from another continent in days. You can stand on a street in a restaurant strip and, in the blink of an eye, find the best reviewed restaurant for your cuisine of choice. Now, I realise you know all of these things already, but it’s worth remembering that for most of human existence, none of this was possible. For the most part we got by on what we could keep in our heads. After a while we started getting by on what we could write down, too. Our restaurant selection was more limited and there were replacement blender blades sitting on the other side of the world that we’d never know about. It was hell. The internet means that staggering amounts of information are accessible from almost anywhere. But what makes it useful is the ability to sift through it all in seconds and find the little bit you need. That’s why Google is such a hit. It’s made fact finding instantaneous and part of everyday life. I was beginning to think Google had the answer to everything. But then I realised that Google only has the answers to the things it already knows and that I know to ask. The other day I went to the New York Public Library. Before you think I’m saying that to sound impressive, I was just dropping in to visit my wife, who actually is. Among many other things she does as a writer and researcher, she uses the restricted-access collections at such great libraries to find things the world has almost, but not quite, forgotten about. They can be the letters someone you never heard of wrote to another someone you’ve never heard of, but they can tell you more about the world now, and the world before now, than facts and statistics. They’re like echoes of footsteps down streets decades ago and to read them not only lets you hear those footsteps, it can put you in their shoes. There are things Google doesn’t know. There are some things – important things – that are sitting in books on shelves in libraries. The accumulated knowledge of humankind is not merely a collection of facts that a Google search can spit out, it’s the language and voices of those who wrote them down, it’s the magic that lives in the spaces between those facts – the breaths between words, the coffee stains on the manuscripts, the fingerprint on the latch of the box. There’s a reason someone keeps all this stuff. It’s the same reason a phone will never replace the library. Because as much as time marches on, and as good as the algorithms get, they’ll never know the difference between fact and truth.
“HUMAN KNOWLEDGE IS NOT MERELY A COLLECTION OF FACTS THAT A GOOGLE SEARCH CAN SPIT OUT.”