Seneca...once wrote: “it is one thing to remember, another to know.”
For Seneca, the stereotypical Google user would be remarkably similar to Calvisius Sabinus, a rich Roman who Seneca explains mastered a unique type of ignorance and stupidity. Sabinus was a foolish man, unable to remember the facts and literary allusions that comprised the educated culture of that time. But he was also a vain man who wanted to be intelligent. With his great wealth he devised a plan.
Calvisius Sabinus purchased educated slaves, each of whom was tasked with knowing a specific bit of culture. One slave knew Homer, another Hesiod and there were others that were expert in each of the nine lyric poets. It cost him a tremendous amount of money to educate these slaves, but once they were ready he put them to use. If, in the midst of a feast, he wished to recite the Greek poet Pindar then he would simply speak while his slave whispered into his ear. In this way, Sabinus believed he had attained wisdom because as he explained to a guest who suggested it would have been easier to educate himself instead of his slaves, responded that, “what any member of his household knew, he himself knew also.”
From our perspective, Calvisius Sabinus is ridiculous. But one must wonder whether we are not like him. Do we rely on Google to provide us with the knowledge that we lack, leaving ourselves empty of wisdom? Is Google like the retinue of educated slaves, ever ready to insert the proper cultural reference so that we may stay in overall ignorance?
For Seneca, the definition of wisdom was not simply to be one who does not rely on memorization. He went further, and said that wisdom was something that can only happen once knowledge had become internalized, a part of ourselves.
Those quaint objections from a simpler time still hold no sway for me. I remember something I wrote in 2007:
As James Burke noted in The Day The Universe Changed, for a long time human knowledge and understanding was limited to personal experience that extended no more than maybe 20 miles from home. True, expanded access to information hasn't necessarily lead to greater wisdom, but how else can we even try to realize our potential as sentient beings if we don't outsource some of our information collection and network our brains?
I think of my memory as merely an initialization vector, a collection of pointers. I remember some important, more immediate things that are germane to my daily existence, and the rest are links that say "click here for more." So I know I read something somewhere about a story wherein somebody was bitching about writing fucking with our memories, then I google it and find Plato's scribblings that I once read long ago. Thus I reinforce this memory as well as bring it to you.
Whether we want to or not, we might just return to a state where
parochial concerns are paramount, and memory is limited to storing
what's necessary for immediate survival and not much more. Until then,
I'm rather thankful we have Google, Wikipedia and Crackberries.