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Who Writes the Encyclopedia?
March 23, 2012
I know that this dates me, but as an early adopter of a home computer (late 1980s – Prodigy!) I was intrigued by the first CD Encyclopedia that I bought. Instead of the World Books on the shelf here was everything on disks – with moving pictures and sound to boot! But I realized that the articles were all shorter, and geared towards a shorter attention span than I remembered from researching topics when I was a student. After a time I began to kind of resent the editing that made all this information compact and easy to consume – kind of like fast food. I decided that digital – and eventually Internet – compilations of information were convenient but not the only way to access information.
When I tried to find a taker for my World Book series of encyclopedias two summers ago I was horrified to find that NO ONE (not schools, not shelters, not libraries) was interested in having such an obsolete print edition of data. Internet publishing has virtually eliminated print editions of encyclopedic data. And, beyond that, Wikipedia has pretty much replaced professionally written and edited copy. It is the “world as writer” approach to encyclopedias (twenty-first century version of the million monkeys on a million typewriters). When people need random bits of information today then need it to be easy to access and they want it quickly.
I guess that what I miss is the experience of digging around for information. I realize that part of my education was the act of searching for answers and, in the process, learning things that I might not have ever found any other way. I don’t know that it is quantitatively better or worse, but it certainly is different. The way in which the information is delivered has materially changed the way in which we receive it – quickly, written in easy to understand language, and filtered by what we enter into the search engine.
With my age showing, again, I confess that I worry that the faceless “world as writers” effectively edits what we find when we search for information. If Microsoft and Google and “others” control all the data on the Internet they do, by extension, determine what it is we will find when we use the fast and free tools at our disposal. That makes the case for not relying exclusively on this fast food approach to gathering information.
Printed road maps are almost extinct, replaced by GPS and Smart Phones with real time traffic mapping. Bound printed Encyclopedias are really only used for flower pressing. But the need for the information doesn’t change even though the distribution of the printed communication is changing.