Thursday, March 15, 2012

The End of Knowledge As We Know It

Perhaps some of you felt the same peculiar pang in your hearts that I felt in mine when I opened the paper on Wednesday and read that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer exist as a printed work after the 2010 edition sells out, but will instead continue on solely as an on-line enterprise. I’m hardly in a position to complain, given that I can’t actually remember the last time I opened a printed encyclopedia to look something up. Nonetheless, and despite my own partial responsibility in creating the climate that led to the Britannica’s demise, I still find myself saddened by their decision and—this is the more rational part of the response—possessed of the conviction that some sort of line in the history of human intellectual pursuits has been crossed with their decision to acquiesce to the reality of the age of digitized information. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit too much to say. But it does feel momentous, the thought that future generations will not encounter culture or science packaged in anything like the way I first encountered them as a child.) So maybe I will complain, just not too loudly, lest I sound like one of those people who endlessly laments the disappearance of bookstores and record shops but who personally stopped buying books and CDs in stores once they became available on-line for less money and for less effort. But wait a minute…I am one of those people! And, that being the case, why shouldn’t I also regret that volumes that I personally haven’t opened in decades will no longer be updated and printed annually for me to continue not to consult? Why not? A bit of inconsistency never killed anyone! (For my younger readers, CDs were silver disks with music embedded in them that people used to buy before music began simply to waft through the air directly into people’s iPods. I’ll explain what books were some other time.)

We didn’t own a Britannica when I was growing up, but my Uncle Raph and my Aunt Molly did. It was kept in a low bookcase facing the front door of their apartment on Highland Avenue in Queens, so you couldn’t miss it when you came to visit. And I certainly didn’t miss it, not ever. I believe the story is that my uncle won it appearing on some radio quiz show long before I was born, which detail only added to its luster in my mind: the thought that one could actually win such a thing in a contest was only one step removed from my own fantasy that I might one day receive a set of books like that as a present for Chanukah or for my birthday. And I coveted those books! As some readers may recall, they were very handsome volumes, each bound in brown leather with golden letters on the spine that distinguished the tomes not only from each other but also from every other book I had ever seen. They even had a particular smell to them, those books, something hard to describe but not at all unpleasant. In my child’s eyes, those books were the embodiment of knowledge, the source of all truly reliable information, something to be proud of being related to someone who owned a full set of which. My father told me many times that my Uncle Raph, who was revered in our family both for the breadth and the depth of his knowledge (and who, incidentally, was one of the few true autodidacts I’ve ever met), had read the entire thing.

Could that be true? Even now, it seems unimaginable to me: I don’t know what edition my aunt and uncle owned, but the index of the 2007 edition listed a quarter of a million topics covered and another half million sub-entries under those topics. Even if the earlier editions were shorter (which I have no specific reason to think they were), that’s still an awful lot of reading even for a man possessed of my uncle’s thirst for knowledge and talent for mastering intellectual challenges. The World Book, which we also didn’t own but which many of my friends did have at home, paled by comparison. Everything paled by comparison. I wanted a Britannica at home, just like my uncle and aunt. I wanted to read the whole thing too, starting with the aardvarks and working my way through to the Zulus, just like my uncle did (or may have). And I wanted people to see our books too as soon as they stepped into our apartment and thus come to think of our home as a place in which people who truly revered learning. I was that kind of kid. (I heard that! Is it that obvious?)

It never happened. We never bought the books. I don’t recall even discussing buying them. I’ve certainly never read them, not entirely and not even mostly. When I need some information nowadays, even to find out when and where the Britannica was first published (1768-1771, in Edinburgh), I go to Wikipedia. It’s free. It’s always there. (I have the Wikipedia app installed on my phone, so it really is always there.) It’s remarkably accurate and generally, at least as far as I can see, free of bias. There’s a Britannica on-line site as well, but it costs $70 a year for full access. Part of me wants to pay, but the other part of me—I heard that too, but isn’t “frugal” a nicer way to say the same thing?—can’t quite bring myself to fork over the money. What for? So I can gather even more material I’ll never find the time actually to read? Plus, you can always amuse yourself, also for free, by perusing Wikipedia’s index of articles in Yiddish or Yoruba or Xitsonga. (There are editions of Wikipedia in an astounding 283 languages. Who even knew there were that many languages in the world to look things up in?)

The demise of the print edition has been coming for a long time. In 1990, they sold about 120,000 copies of the thirty-two volume set. This year, only a little more than two decades later, they printed a mere 12,000, of which they have managed to sell only 8000 copies at $1395 per set. It’s not that much money. For the same money, roughly, you can spend somewhere between 250 and 300 hours at the movies. But you could read the Britannica for years and years—really, for a lifetime—and never be done learning what there is to know in the world. And yet, as noted above, who am I to lament the demise of the printed edition? I myself wouldn’t dream of getting in my car and driving to a library to look something up in an encyclopedia, much of parting with $1395 to look that same thing up at home. Nor does anyone with an internet connection have to: for $70 you can have the whole thing in your pocket or your purse. And for free you can have Wikipedia, which paradoxically by its very existence proves the need for encyclopedias in the modern world, just not for printed ones bound in leather that weigh a ton and are the opposite of portable. (By way of comparison with the EB, Wikipedia has 21 million articles, 3.8 million of them in English. On the average month, Wikipedia receives about 2.7 billion pageviews from the United States alone. And since all the information lives in the cloud somewhere, it doesn’t take up any space at all, not on your bookshelves and not on your hard drive either. It’s just there, something in the spirit of what the psalmist described God as being nimtza me’od—“intensely present.”)

And so the world moves forward into unknown and unknowable future. Features of our childhoods that once felt absolutely permanent and fully real turn out to be fully impermanent and totally replaceable. The print edition of the Britannica was a kind of anchor for me as I was growing up and trying to invent myself, something the mere existence of which proved (at least to the young me) that knowledge was attainable (if not quite finite), that you could—if you only had enough patience and sitzfleisch—find in one single place more or less everything there was to know. So I was wrong, so what? I felt beckoned to by those books, called to see just what (I naively imagined) everybody else in the world knew about everything and that somehow only I had yet to find out.

My uncle and aunt are gone now, as are my parents and all of their siblings. That much of the world, we all know. But who ever thought the Britannica would vanish, that it even could vanish? I related to the article in the newspaper Wednesday not that differently from the way I responded at the end of Planet of the Apes when the monkeys come across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and you realize this has all been happening on earth: that the Statue of Liberty is a man-made thing that could somehow be destroyed is obviously true…but who can imagine it not being there watching over the harbor? I suppose one could say the same thing about the Twin Towers. But perhaps that is the big lesson to be learned from all of the above, both the horrific and the relatively benign: nothing is truly permanent, everything is in a constant state of change. As King Kohelet noted millennia ago, the rivers are constantly flowing in to the sea, but the sea never seems to fill up but merely exists in the context of ongoing change so that its apparent permanence is just an illusion and nothing more. Can the same be said of human knowledge, even absent the innately ephemeral nature of the printed books in which it has up until now been presented to the reading public? That, I suppose remains to be seen!

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