Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Next, Cyberspace?

It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it! Encyclopedia Britannica announced that after nearly 250 years it no longer will produce a physical, printed edition. You can still utilize the esteemed reference tool, but only online.

I remember as a young person gazing with awe at the Encyclopedia Britannica. Dozens of hefty, scholarly, word-packed volumes, covering everything from Aardvark to Zwingli. (Ulrich Zwingli, in case you’re wondering, was a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland in the early 16th century.) My family actually had a lesser encyclopedia, although not World Book or Funk & Wagnalls. But no matter, everyone knew the Encyclopedia Britannica was the Everest of encyclopedias. It became the fertile breeding ground for countless term papers and reports.

If you needed to know anything, chances are you would find it there. You still can, but now exclusively via cyberspace.

The Encyclo Brit (does anyone call it that, or did I make up a nickname?) is just the latest virtual information casualty.

When was the last time you sent – or received – a bonafide, handwritten letter? Even a note? Many of us still write letters, but they’re mostly composed on keyboards, and usually not “sent” in the traditional post office sense. They’re written and dispatched via e-mail, simply by pressing the magic “Send” button.

The same is true of many other types of communications: Invitations, announcements, memos, advertisements, publications. Even pesky chain letters have gotten cyber-spacy. I fear this has dealt the U.S. Postal Service a mortal wound.

Then there’s that grand American institution, the public library. I honestly haven’t been inside one in years. Why bother when all the information I need is literally at my fingertips, using Google or some other search engine? And although I haven’t yet taken this technological leap, just about any book you want can be downloaded to your tablet computer. (Said the professor to the student, “Take one tablet and text me in the morning”!)

It still seems somewhat adventurous to wander down library aisles, surrounded by shelves of musty-smelling books, not knowing what stands stacked within your grasp. I might visit a library again, if only for the nostalgia.

But let’s face it. Technology is reinventing our culture. And it’s not all bad. With the sum total of human knowledge doubling geometrically, it’s become impossible to contain it all within the scope of paper and ink. Why buy an encyclopedia that’s outdated before it’s off the press? Similarly, many newspapers are struggling because what they tell us is more history than news.

Yet, we need caution: Surrounded with this readily accessible, ever-expanding mass of information, we need wisdom to understand how to utilize it for good and not for ill. We can’t reverse the calendar, and technological change is only accelerating. So instead, we’d be wise to emulate the “men of Issachar” of the Old Testament who, we’re told, “understood the times and knew what (they) should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).   

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