Some things never change.

For those who argue that Google is changing the world for better or for worse, I present you with the proof that google isn’t changing anything. Observe:

I’m a big fan of finding the definition of tough words on google. So today, I popped this gem into a google search:

define: stultifying

And google, with billions in profits and an army of computer scientists, answered my query:

Definitions of stultifying on the Web:

Tending to stultify

Yes friends, even in the 21st century the actual definition of a word is quite elusive. Nor is there a link to the verb stultify, which would represent a great leap forward in dictionary world. I would have come to the same conclusion if I’d brushed the cobwebs off of the stultiest old dictionary in the world. When will we see the day that a person can find a definition of a difficult word that doesn’t include the incomprehensible word which sparked the search?

This underscores a pattern I’ve been noticing for the first time. The web is not, as is so often believed, an innovative thing. It’s largely a new manifestation of the old- and I happen to have the perfect example. For centuries, libraries have relied on paper cards stacked oh-so-neatly into a drawer which sits amidst dozens of other drawers. This represented the pinnacle of bibliographic organization- the card catalog, as it was known at that time.

Then came library automation, a term which to my ears sounds every bit as archaic as talking picture.

Automation relied on very primitive computers and a helluva lot of magnetic tape, which in time was transferred to more complex computers with magnetic platters (most still use this medium), and most recently, library catalogs on the internet. From the time of little cards up to the age of the iphone, libraries have developed dizzyingly complex system which allows us to search for any library material, anywhere, anytime we want. And we call it….the card catalog.

Should this surprise anyone? Not if you look at the information stored first in paper cards, then magnetic reels, then magnetic platters, and soon solid state drives. No, bibliographic information has scarcely changed at all throughout a period of unprecedented technological advances. Naturally, you’d assume it’s because your average librarian is a luddite bookworm, loathsome of google and the monopoly on information it has formed. But you’d be wrong.

At every level of our society, technology shapes our activities. What it doesn’t change is our habits/needs. If you think about it, it’s hard to prove that any technology has really changed what we do; it merely changes how we do it. Library catalogs contain the same information, regardless of what medium they occupy. Same with video- it went from reels to smaller reels (tapes) to dvd’s to blu-ray discs to the internet. But we still watch it, just the same. Music is nearly identical, if not much older example- we’re just as aurally stimulated by tribal chants as the Beatles music in the itunes store. Agriculture, one of the oldest activities our civilization has ever pursued, bears no resemblance at all to the pasttime our ancient ancestors (or even farming as our grandparents knew it, for that matter). And of course, the world’s oldest profession hasn’t changed a bit.

What then, constitutes a real change? I can’t say with certainty. I can’t even be sure that there is ‘real’ change. It’s entirely possible that time is circular, and we just keep reliving the same things in different settings. A very simple analogy is foliage- every year the trees grow new leaves, each one absolutely unique, yet almost indistinguishable from its neighbor. Every year they spend the season, change colors, die, and re-emerge. If you think about it on a larger scale, this yearly cycle might seem to never end. Left alone, our consciousness might not even conceive of linnear time, since every year the leaves experience the same cycle.

Our bodies give away the illusion- year after year, we change (sometimes imperceptibly, other times not). It’s most noticeable in children- they make change more quickly than the rest of us (or maybe we stay the same more than them). In any case, it would seem that this is definite evidence of linnear time. Naturally, I disagree. I don’t think we’re fundamentally different from leaves- we’re all unique, each with his own time and place, yet we’re bound to a singular existence- no matter what, we still do the same things as the folks who witnessed the turn of the first millennium, and we’ll still be doing the same things 1,000 years from now.

With that in mind, I fully expect many things to be different. We’re pretty screwed if 1,000 years from now we haven’t begun to spread to other planets, fly in air-cars and walk our dogs on automatic treadmills. But then, we’ll still be doing the same things, whether it’s in space, in hell, or somewhere in between.

One thought on “Some things never change.

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