On the subject of libraries, Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson thus: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”
What would Johnson make of the web? I think about this quote whenever I reflect on the fact that, to a fair approximation, all human knowledge is one Google search away. In other words, knowledge is of two kinds: that which we know, and that which we have the good sense to ask Google for. More succinctly, obscurity ain’t what it used to be. Obscurity is not the obscurity of the dusty book lost in the shadowy stacks. Obscurity is the obscurity of your inability to formulate a question in the first place. Once you can do that, there is no question about where to look.
This leads to a surprising conclusion. The more convenient the search, the more valuable the intrinsic knowledge. The distance between forming the question and finding the answer is vanishing. So relatively speaking, packing a lot of information into your head still pays. Take heart… that liberal arts education may pay off yet!
This all came to mind because of Tom Lehrer and my brother-in-law Joe. Joe sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Tom Lehrer performing songs of his that I know far too well. Did I want to see them? Of course I wanted to see them! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to go looking for them before. Joe’s email nudged them “closer” to me, but really they were the same distance from me all along. Everything I want to know is right there, only I don’t yet know that I want to know it yet.
Enough. Now go watch Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.