What the in­ter­net doesn’t know.

GQ (Australia) - - INSIDE GQ -

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.


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