Monday, April 25, 2011

The Obsolete Savant

A few nights ago I was at my local when the song “Fool in the Rain” began to play which, of course, led to a conversation with a slightly drunk patron about Led Zeppelin. One of the more mundane conversations that I had had on the subject, neither of us had any controversial statements to make (one of the most famous is the age old proclamation that “Led Zeppelin is overrated.”). Both of us liked the song. Both of us liked the band. Both of us believed that the album from which the song came (In through the Out Door) was decent enough, while certainly not as strong as their earlier albums.

“There were some good songs on that album,” he said. “’D’yer Mak’er’ is one of my favorites.”

“That’s off Houses of the Holy,” I told him.

“No. It’s off of In through the Out Door,” he asserted.

“I’m 99.44 percent certain sure that it’s off of Houses of the Holy,” I said in a tone which attempted to be authoritative but non-combative and non-condescending.

“No. I’m pretty sure it was In through the Out Door,” he stubbornly added.

As we had just met, he had no reason to believe me and doubt his own memory. He didn’t know about my collection of classic records, my memory for facts, my obsessive attention to the minutest details. He didn’t know of the late-night calls I frequently received from drunken friends to settle bar bets about who played what on what and so forth. I’m not bragging. In fact, I’m not sure this something worth bragging about.

Forgoing a long drawn out debate, I pulled out my smart phone, pulled up the Wikipedia page for Houses of the Holy, and showed it to him. He conceded and the conversation casually meandered elsewhere. No hours of bickering. No bringing up dozens of tangentially related facts in order to prove our expertise to each other with neither side willing to back down until finally agreeing to disagree, but not really because it would still be gnawing at us and every newcomer to the bar would be asked to weigh in to support one of our sides. No, we solved it in a matter of seconds and that was it. After so brief a battle, the victory was hollow.

What was the victory, anyway? To have recalled information that anyone with a computer or smart phone would be able to instantly access? The guy didn’t even seem impressed.

Today one does not need knowledge; one simply needs the ability to access it. With the internet available nearly everywhere on all sorts of devices, most people have that ability at any given time. One simply needs to be able to plug into this collective consciousness and pulls whatever morsel of data that is needed out of the digital ether.

I’m not saying that this makes us a nation of idiots. And it is important to note that this kind of paradigm brings with it issues of its own and a whole different skill set. The internet, that wonderful repository for all discovery, philosophy, epistemology, and pornography also includes vast amounts of hearsay, illogical arguments, un-cited quotes, and straight-up stupidity. It requires diligence to sift through this mess to find verifiable information. In fact, it’s the same kind of diligence required of any kind of research. Cross referencing and citation checking may seem a bit tedious to the modern internet surfer, but as concerned citizens of the digital frontier, it is imperative to use these new digital stockpiles of information fully and responsibly. That said, in a pinch Wikipedia is generally all one needs to quickly, easily, and reliably determine what album “D’yer Mak’er” was on(while nothing online is infallible, Wikipedia is pretty good for basic facts, and for things to be posted, it does require citation).

I guess what makes me the sad is the fact that people like me are simply not needed anymore. In years before the wisdom of the ages could be instantly accessed from the cloud, experts served a very particular function, to maintain the knowledge that others did not have the time, energy, or desire to acquire, either because they had more pressing concerns or perhaps they actually had social lives. Today, they don’t need some geek like me.

Worse, no longer are we simply unneeded, but more, we are largely undesirable. Who wants to have some guy around who slavishly dissects liner notes, pours through musicians’ biographies, and spends hours researching obscure session men? These loner geek-savants tend to make rather trying and creepy company. Now no longer kept on retainer to settle the odd bar bet, we mostly engage one another, finding weaknesses and exploiting them in games of geeky one-upsmanship.

I still maintain that, as good as smart phones are, the geek savant will be able to supply more information and faster. Not only will the geek savant tell you what album the song was off of, but the name of the session guy who played violin on the track, and what obscure band he used to be in with a guy who later played drums in Wings. However, while beating the machine in such a decisive way would be a point of pride with the geek savant, most normal people would probably rather take a few extra seconds to Google something than be inundated with all of the other extraneous information.

Most people would simply be glad to know that such information is accessible should want to find it at some point, and also comfortable knowing that they most likely never will.

But I argue that there are hazards involved with relying on the information simply being in the cloud, even beyond the apocalyptic fear that the whole system may someday collapse, plummeting us all into the dark ages before e-mail, Facebook and internet porn. The main concern should be the fact that the ability to remember vast quantities of facts tends to involve mind mapping and contextualization, which not only act as mnemonic devices, but also give weight to the information. Simply accessing facts may lead to a less critical eye when assessing information and determining its validity and importance. The bigger picture could be lost.

I am not writing this to say that everyone should start pouring through tomes about musicians, songwriters and producers (hell, I’ve even heard that there are other things to learn about beyond music). This way of thinking is not for everyone. In fact, we are aware of being different and our undeserved feeling of superiority comes from that fact that we know more than others (care to) know. But please don’t throw us under the bus because of this. We still serve a function. We’ll still tell you want you want to know and a little bit more of what you were unaware that you needed to know. Don’t abandon us for the new toy.


Kevin said...

"Simply accessing facts may lead to a less critical eye when assessing information and determining its validity and importance. The bigger picture could be lost."

Indeed. And to that point, I have less faith than you in the "citation" requirement of Weak-a-pedia. The "Houses" track list is a universal enough fact for the Interwebs guardians to ensure it's preservation, but on lesser known if no less important points, presumption has a way of willing itself into fact on that insidious forum. A personal example:

For weeks I went back and forth with a Wikipedia regular who insisted that the musician Nicole Atkins grew up in Neptune City, NJ. He cited article after article saying as much, most on independent blog-style 'zines, a few in nationally distributed print publications. All were inaccurate.

I happen to have known Miss Atkins during the years in question and indeed drove to her house on more than one occasion with friends to pick her up on the way to the Arts Center for a concert. I know what town we were in when we stopped in front of her house, and it sure as heck wasn't Neptune City. I tried explaining this to the chap, but he kept going back to "citations! citations! It's in print! It must be true!" That Atkins' record company was all too willing to propagate this myth in order to sell her album, which was indeed titled "Neptune City", didn't help matters. Eventually I succeeded in exasperating him out of the will to argue with me further, but the larger point remains that Wikipedia, by virtue of its reliance on unsourced material AS source material, is about as reliable as a 9-dollar bill.

So, to your point that fonts of wisdom such as yourself are not needed, I say, "Au contraire!" You are needed now more than ever - not only as bulwarks against the trappings of the Disinformation Age, but as conversationalists and catalysts of the human interaction the Interwebs preclude.

(And yes, I DO appreciate the irony of my using a blog to pine for the days of pre-'net human interaction , thank you.)

Roger Weisman said...

I never meant to imply that Wikipedia is infallible, or that it is good for any type of in depth research. Theoretically, Wikipedia is meant to be self correcting with any faulty information able to be amended by the myriad of users. While I certainly do not believe in truth by way of consensus, it can be supposed that the contributors are people with a strong interest in the subject, usually people with a degree of expertise. I have conducted no studies to prove this, but Lawrence Lessig has written extensively about the benefits of these types of open source platforms, and I personally have observed the creation of Wikipedia pages that were simply done as a labor of love. Also, experiments have been down in which brazenly inaccurate information was added to pages was subsequently corrected by other users within minutes. The fault you cited in the case of Nicole Atkins was a fault in the source material, which you blamed, in part, on the record company wishing to propagate the rumor. This would certainly a case of the source being unreliable and deliberately so. It must be pointed out that, if this is indeed a ruse, it is one in which she apparently takes part as well. While many of the cited articles were from blogs with information of indeterminate origin, one of the articles cited was from The New York Times based around an interview conducted with the artist. Postulating that the Times story is reliable, if she indeed is not from Neptune, she doesn’t want anyone to know that, and the official bio, real or fabricated, is far more difficult to contradict.
I recall when Gary Moore, the Irish rock/blues guitar player, died a few months back, Wikipedia initially showed that he had gone the way of so many rock stars, by choking on his own vomit. The source cited for this was The Sun, the sensationalistic British tabloid. When discussing the story with some friends a couple of hours later, I went to look at the article again, but this time it read that he had died of a heart attack, reflecting the news releases that followed. I suppose that conspiracy buffs might argue that the press was handed a sanitized version of the story to cover up for the gory, embarrassing truth uncovered earlier by The Sun (I recall the scene from Men in Black in which Tommy Lee Jones picks up a stack of Weekly World News Magazines, proclaiming them the “best investigative journalism in the world”), while others would argue that The Sun is a periodical of no journalistic integrity and would sooner believe the more reputable periodicals that hugely outnumbered it.
Of course, citation is not the be-all end-all. It is not that you cite; it is what you cite. Obviously, the very act of citing does not provide undeniable proof, but it gives the reader the ability to follow the chain of information and to attempt to ascertain its veracity. In the case of Wikipedia, it does force a greater degree of journalistic rigor than the average message board poster or amateur blogger might be inclined towards. Citing blogs that have no reputation for sound journalism or any code of ethics is useless except for the fact that the citation itself will give me cause for skepticism, forcing me to try to cross reference to a more reputable source. One of the points that I was trying to make in my post was that the more information we are inundated with from countless sources, the more difficult it becomes to wade through it. Skepticism is thus an invaluable tool.
Of course, not all will read Wikipedia with such a critical eye, but I am still glad that someone is trying to bring some accountability to the lawless backwaters of the internet.

Kevin said...

Agreed re: it's not that you cite, it's what you cite. Actually that Times article happens to be accurate (though I would never postulate that any article is accurate just 'cause it's in the Times. I have another story about that.) She was indeed born and raised in Neptune, which borders Neptune City but is a distinct town. This may not seem worth quibbling over to an Alaskan or Texan, but confusing the two in the presence of a clamdigger such as myself is taking your life into your hands. Thus my fervor.

To your larger point, yes, ideally, the accurate information will rise to the top via the community, but the propensity toward vandalism and "let's-see-what-i-can-get-away-with" continues to be a stain on Wikipedia and other open-source sites. Couple that with increasingly lazy and uncircumspect reporting in traditional papers of record, and the powers of recall from individuals such as yourself are needed more than ever.

Plus...."In Through The Out Door?" Come on, man. Everybody knows they were WAY beyond their reggae period at that point.