“Old farts going to the library”

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In class, a student, during a discussion about the differences between oral, written and digital communication, said that she “heard about old farts going to the library to get a book” and that she did not want to have anything to do with that. Besides the fact that her statement seems to make an age-related comment (her use of the word “old”, i.e. not digital native) and is inappropriate for an academic setting (“farts”), it shows how easily some crucial differences in experience are dismissed. My answer? I said, Let’s look at the picture from a closer perspective. Let’s imagine a person who, about 40 years ago, wanted to find more information about Cicero. By the time he or she got to the library, even before starting to look at the card catalogue, their imagination went (sometimes wild) with anticipation about discovering elements of the orator’s life, mode of reasoning, topics he spoke about, historical events he lived through, etc. Then, after finding the call number, he/she got to the stacks, where there were numerous books (with different titles, also telling the library patrons more about Cicero) to choose from. And, obviously, reading of the selected book followed, if one so desired. Today, if one wanted to know something about Cicero, the answer would be right at one’s finger tips (close to ten billion hits including pictures). The real change points to the duration of anticipation: it indicates that the experience in retrieving and enjoying information is dramatically different. One mode is neither better nor worse than the other – they are different.
This anecdote is related to the way information and knowledge are discussed in Raffaele Simone’s book Presi nella rete. La mente ai tempi del web (Garzanti, 2012). Simone claims that pre-digital culture was based on an encyclopedic view of knowledge, where topics were connected, where school curricula rested on step-by-step sequences of knowledge construction. Post-digital era offers what Simone calls “sapere irrelato” (unrelated/discrete knowledge). The library patrons described above were coerced, involuntarily, by the circumstances of having to look for information painstakingly, to make connections in their minds even before reading (having the time to do it), to situate Cicero in their mental encyclopedia. Digital access provides instantaneous information gathering, but as usual in everything postmodern, the onus of relating those facts to others is on the user, in this case, after accessing the information. The effects of this significant transformation of mental attitude to information gathering remain to be seen.

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