from the local library

7th June, 2008

i’m in rural massachusetts writing on my laptop in a library and i’m thinking about all those books stacked around me and how they are tangible instantiations of other bodies of knowledge accumulated and developed by people i’ll never know.

i’ll never read the majority of the books here, (the librarian says there are about 7,000 books on the shelves) or anywhere, for that matter – but i’m struck by the feeling of sitting and wandering around them – and how they’re organized, and how the combination of the card catalog and stacking system opens multiple doors to discovery and counters a desire for proof of some concept with the very real potential for finding that there is another idea that hadn’t crossed your mind, that alters your argument, but is utterly appropriate. you’ve had that experience, right? the happy accident of the mis-shelved book or the discovery of a title in the card catalog that takes you off in an unexpected but ultimately deeply meaningful direction?

i realize, sitting here, that i’ll never know very much, AND that there’s a lot to know in this vast world. if i really want to develop a more nuanced understanding of things i’d better open myself up to the bodies of knowledge that are other people and accept that if i focus my own point of view too narrowly i’ll miss the broader twists and turns and become a bore.

as i write and research on my laptop (i’m here, by the way, because of a free broadband connection…) i’m struck by how tightly focussed and individuated i feel. in my work, whatever i think i need to know is a matter of a succinct google query. i know that there is an impressive amount of knowledge on line. the web has been, and is, an agent of significant change in my life. i love it. the organizing element of my surfing in this vast digitized resource, however, is me and my needs and opinions and their justification. there are other people out there, but, fundamentally, it’s all about me and what’s mine.

as i’ve always had a concern about being one of those humorless people who believe their own bullshit i’ve taken measures that i hope will curb my impulse to be right all the time. most significant among those measures is a practice of listening and accepting the opinions of other people as a means to understanding what they’re talking about before i argue with them. and much of the time i try to figure out how their opinion as stated relates to mine, and if the two together can work together to provide a more nuanced observation. two books stacked on the shelves. two people at different locations on the elephant.

anyway, it strikes me that, in online research, regardless of the level of foolishness the theory, lack of adequately developed bodies of data, etc., i’m bound to find someone else whose idea supports mine. i can always end up feeling somehow fact checked and validated in my opinions. and i’m using a computer – a machine developed to compute all sorts of complicated equations and algorithms, an instrument of science! i wonder if i, and perhaps even you, have an expectation for the feeling that comes along with being proved right that causes me to skim over potentially contradictory ideas to make my ego happy.

hmmm.

somehow the nature of researching on the web seems to have a strong potential to promote a targeted, individuated quest for proof, which, given the chaotic nature of the web seems to be missing the point entirely, and, as i sit here among the stacks, feels eerily similar to shopping.

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