Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Really Big Deal in Many Small Ways

John Holbo at Crooked Timber has a post that I appreciate in a couple of ways. First physically.....

I’m a lefty, which means I now occasionally Google up things to do with left-handed guitar.

I never tried to learn guitar, but as a fellow lefty (the only one in my family; now my daughter is right-handed despite both her parents being left-handed; I continue to wonder about that), I can sympathize with the struggle to learn to do just about anything. My southpaw status was a source of great consternation to my Kindergarten teacher; her attempt to convert me was only slightly less enthusiastic than that of a new missionary in Africa. My brief foray into golf as a teen was with right-handed clubs, because that was what I happened to buy at a rummage sale; I didn't know left-handed clubs existed. I was given permission to "cheat" in the 10-key adding machine (yes, I know.... once again I date myself) portion of a class in high school by looking at the keys more than usually allowed because neither the teacher nor I knew how to handle my incompatibility with the right-handed layout.

Then there's John's larger point.....

I think about the things that interested me, growing up – like science fiction novels, for example. And comics. And I realize that almost everything I knew about these things that mattered a great deal to me (did you notice?) I learned by talking to about six people, four of whom were kids like me, and going to four different stores in my hometown. (And sex. Did I mention that, as a young teen, I was quite intrigued by the topic of sex, but – sadly – lacked reliable sources of information and reportage on the subject.) I suspect you could provide your own examples, if you grew up pre-internet. And I feel it’s pretty important, somehow, that those of you who grew up post-internet probably can’t provide your own examples. Or rather fewer.

Of course, this is a flagrantly obvious thought: the internet = important!

Commenter Emma added this. was also limited to a much smaller slice of cultural achievement—that which was current in one’s social circle and popular culture. Which led to strange knowledges and huge gaps. I could sing all of Oklahoma, because my parents had the record, but could only listen to the pop music of the actual year I was in, because that was all that was on the radio station I could get on my transistor. You might see West Side Story on the telly, late one Saturday night, and have to wait years to see it again. No culture on demand. No way to know who was the third spear carrier in the back row of the black and white movie who looked strangely familiar. I’m so much less tolerant of those gaps now.

Just recently I said to my wife that I can only imagine how different my very-small-town childhood would have been if the internet had existed. I was recreational reader of reference books when I wasn't wandering around outside daydreaming; my parents would probably have had to throw me outside if I'd had the internet to peruse. I can also only guess what effect the lessening of small-town isolation would have had; as it was TV (non-cable) was my prime source of information about the wider world.

Of course, I see the downside to the internet regularly when I help my daughter search for information for a school report; the huge amount of junk that has to be winnowed. But even this has the benefit of cultivating useful skills such as the ability to corroborate and recognize reliability in sources.

Commenter magistra had this to say.

I think there are a couple of particularly interesting wider issues. One is that the concept of what is ‘normal’ is getting redefined. If you are into China bluegrass or believe in alien abductions, you are no longer an isolated freak (though you may still be a freak); you have support for your interests or views.

As someone who wasn't exactly "normal" growing up (and probably still isn't), I can relate to that.

The other is the increasing significance of partially-reliable sources. If you wanted to know about Blake’s Seven or George III twenty years ago, you could go and find a reference book (which would probably have been edited very carefully) or you could rely on what you and your friends could remember (probably very inaccurate). Now you can go to Wikipedia or other online sites and get information which is probably mostly right, but not as rigorously checked as a book would have been. All this is anathema to proper reference librarians, but for many things, probably/partially right information is enough. I look up several dozen trivial queries a day: not worth going to the library (or even digging out a reference book) for, but nice to know.

Those last few words are a pretty good summary of what the internet has done for me as a generally curious person; it has provided easy access to things (and people) that are nice to know.