Wiki, don’t wait

By Jonathan Jacobson

Yesterday, I searched the Internet for the origins of Wikipedia. But, unfortunately, I could think of only one Web site that would give me the answers to my deepest, most pressing questions.

Yes, that’s correct. I searched Wikipedia for Wikipedia.

I get the feeling, though, that I’m not the first person to do this. Perhaps I’m not even the second. But I am definitely the searcher most bothered by my own pathetic curiosity.

Like so many others, I am a chronic user of Wikipedia. Unlike so many others, I am perpetually embarrassed of this fact, constantly berating my own inadequacy, ignorance and sloth.

When I want information – and perhaps this should be the motto of our generation – I want it now. I don’t want to wait to find out the name of the island where Napoleon was deported the second time. I don’t have time to search LexisNexis for a list of Ernest Hemingway’s mistresses. That information is easily available to me in a prepackaged glob of words that appear immediately when I Google virtually anything.

I no longer even care about the quality or even the facticity of the information. I consume Internet knowledge the same way I order a Big Mac at the drive thru. I just need to satiate an appetite; I care not how it gets satiated.

Sadly, this is no longer an uncommon phenomenon. To Wikipedia, to Google, to IMDB. These are all verbs that have entered our lexicon like sweater-eating moths in your basement closet.

Much as I hate to soapbox, these words are short-circuiting our brains and homogenizing our knowledge.

Have you ever noted an odd fact about, say, Walter Matthau only to have your conversational counterpart say something along the lines of, “Yeah, I did know that his last name was never really Matuschanskayasky. Wikipedia said it was just a rumor.”

Perhaps the problem is not readily apparent. After all, the democratization of knowledge is a double-edged sword. Someone who didn’t previously have access to a list of Hem’s ladyfriends now has a chance to e-mail their descendents. Anyone with a decent Internet connection has an inroad to a world of knowledge.

But sometimes democratization brings standardization and the decay of individuality, which can be dangerous or, worse, boring. In some ways, we’re becoming informationally inbred.

The greatest flaw, though, in the Wikipedia generation – that is, us – is our complete and utter lack of patience.

This is not just our fault. Globalization has turned modern life into a 24-hour business cycle, and there’s no longer time to wait for answers to questions.

The greatest impediment to business-as-usual is that the Earth continues to rotate around the sun and everyone can’t be awake at the same time. Maybe we’ll eventually even fix that.

We want everything as fast as we can get it, including knowledge. Unfortunately, there is no express lane to enlightenment and knowledge cannot be consumed or packaged like American cheese slices. It takes time and energy to learn, and it takes patience.

We no longer appreciate or respect information because we have such easy access to it at all times. Because we don’t have to work for answers to our queries, we care less about them, the same way we don’t appreciate microwaveable Easy Mac as much as home-cooked pasta.

As a true testament to Wikipedia’s scourge, I know that I often forget most of the things I look up. I believe that I forget because the information doesn’t have much meaning to me. I don’t have to work very hard for it, I read it quickly, I satisfy my desire, and I move on.

This is at the heart of my distaste for Wikipedia. What we learn can become so unimportant to us that it simply isn’t worth remembering. Devour and discard.

And so I advocate, by way of a solution, a Wikipedia tune-out week. One week where we avoid insta-knowledge and develop a fine appreciation for the data we load onto our cranial hard drives.

Maybe – and it’s just a suggestion, so don’t get all up in arms – we could even pick up a book.

Jonathan is a senior in English and rhetoric and would like to remind those in need of a French history lesson that the island of Napoleon’s second exile was Saint Helena. This information was obtained from an undisclosed source.