This morning, I was seized by a whim to make myself a cup of coffee. It was only me in the apartment, so I just wanted a cup or two… not enough to fire up the entire coffee brewer. But as I pulled the french press off the shelf I realized suddenly that I had never made french press coffee on my own. Ever. And to that end, I’d never learned how to. What was I to do?
Modern-man as I am, I typed “How to make french press coffee” into Google, and the very first result (from www.howtobrewcoffee.com/french no less) gave me exactly the info I needed:
Water between 195 and 200 degrees F
Two tablespoons of grounds per eight ounces of water
3-5 minutes to brew
Along with a procedural list of steps, I had everything I needed. That was, until I realized that I didn’t have a way to measure ounces. Undaunted, I quickly Googled “8 oz in cups” and a handy-dandy volume conversion tool popped up with my answer already displayed. (after which I face-palmed the fact that I did not know that 8 oz is in fact one cup… an equivalency any baker worth his weight in cake should probably know).
I’m not going to lie: I made a pretty awesome cup of coffee. As I sat and enjoyed the fruit of my brief labor, I reflected on how empowered the internet via Google had allowed me to be. In mere milliseconds I had every bit of info I needed to get something done. It was all spelled out for me, black as coffee. Before this morning, I had no clue. Now, I can make it whenever I need to in the future.
I asked the internet how to make french press coffee, and the internet taught me how to make french press coffee. Huzza for the modern world.
But as I sat and sipped, I felt like there was something missing from my experience. Sure, I had more information now. I had the formula in my head “two tablespoons per eight ounces” and the new conversion knowledge “eight ounces is a cup.” And I had the rewarding experience of putting that information to work. So what was missing? I thought for a bit, and stupid as it sounded, I kept coming back to one single thought:
I hadn’t made a crappy cup of coffee.
With good information, I had done it right the first try. And while at face value such an outcome seems ideal, I realized that it was this lack of failure which I was feeling, and feeling negatively.
What I didn’t get to experience was the act of screwing up a cup of french press coffee and all the knowledge that such an experience would have given me. In the act of such a failure, there would have been a wealth of subtle bits of information not grasped consciously but absorbed unconsciously. In the back and forth of trial and error lay the possibility of more intuitive knowledge, a deeper mastery, a more comprehensive understanding of this mythical magical beast of french press coffee.
My discovery of perfect knowledge via Google did not lead me closer to any kind of mastery the way a failure would have. Had I experimented with the variables in this equation – the water temperature, the grounds to water ratio, the grind, the brewing time – I would have grasped not one useful set of variables to solve the equation, but a working knowledge of the equation itself; not just the elements, but the way the elements interacted together; not just a good solution, but a working understanding of why that solution was good.
The act of learning is not just receiving and assimilating a fact. It is also a discovery, a “working through” of the fact to the underlying process of how the fact works, how the fact is contextualized, and how the fact is connected to not just good information, but also bad information. To divorce the good information from all the bad information that provides its foundation is – with respect to mastery and real comprehension – to depower and devalue the very definition of knowledge.
The oft-lauded achievement of the internet and digitized information is that knowledge is now ubiquitous, easily available, and easily found. Even as I type and you read, the work goes on to reproduce, code, and index the entire library of human understanding. At no point in the entire history of mankind have we ever been this capable of sharing and producing information. It is a glorious age.
But there is something lost in this informational user-friendly omnipresence. I contend that just because information, and especially good information, is more easily found does not mean that we are all better equipped and more able, in a word “smarter” than we once were. Once the effort to obtain information has been reduced to its lowest common denominator, we no longer have to “learn” anything. We merely have to “look it up.” I did not have to “learn” how to make a good cup of french press coffee. I had to just look it up.
The ubiquity of online information and ease of use has re-inscribed us as creatures that have access to but no longer possession of information. Previously, I wrote of how we no longer own things in the digital age, but rather “stream” our possessions, and in so doing no longer pay for the right to own, but the right to borrow – the rights for temporary, mediated access. This paradigm extends to knowledge itself. The ultimate logical destination of this progression is us no longer constructing our own knowledge by way of experience, by experimentation, by learning. We only “access” information. We stream it from the internet. We no longer own anything.
Now that the supply of information is nearly limitless – indeed perhaps could be considered infinite – the demand for working knowledge may be waning. The premium seems to be shifting from mastery of knowledge to a mastery of the means of access to knowledge. In other words, it’s no longer a question of who knows more trivia, but a question of whose phone has fastest access to the internet, who has the best app, and who can use that app most effeiciently and effectively. The value has shifted from the content itself to access to content.
I’m not trying to devalue the usefulness and power of the internet as a tool. After all, it certainly gave me a great cup of coffee this morning. But we must be careful that the ease of access to and the ubiquity of information does not take the place of the process of discovery and learning itself. I feel it would benefit us if we keep a vigilant eye to how the Google search begins to take both the role and the name of “learning” as an action.
When “looking it up” relegates “figuring it out” to obsolescence, whole worlds of deeper knowledge – worlds created in self-actualizing, existentially fulfilling acts of productive failure – may be lost.