Modern day general knowledge: Accumulated catch phrases

2013-04-30 23:56

For the first time since the dawn of the RSS Feed, I observed the dying ritual of flicking open the pages of a Sunday paper while enjoying terrible instant coffee. As to be expected, the Pistorius trial is bled dry on the first few pages. What really interested me were the little columns hidden amongst advertisements to entice “tenderpreneurs”.

The one that stood out for me was regarding results of a study conducted at some obscure American university. According to the study this generation has less cumulative knowledge than previous generations. This is due to increased accessibility of information through technology. Essentially, as smartphones get smarter people invariably become dumber. People have no need to remember information when they can get it all on their phone, which is always a pocket away. The article really got me thinking. In the informal studies I have conducted (read: while sitting on the steps of Jameson Hall, diligently procrastinating), I found that not only is this true but it goes a step further. The knowledge that is successfully retained tends to be streamlined catch phrases.

Like any UCT humanities student worth her chai latte, I believed myself to be enlightened. I would let an aimless ‘’Jammie’’ step chill session morph into a political discussion that would solve all the global problems, but can’t be acted on because my next tutorial is in an hour. One thing that stood out for me during these discussions was how similar the remarks were, sometimes almost identical.

For instance, I found myself sitting with a group of people that would epitomise the euphonious rainbow nation. Amongst us was an American exchange student who was taking a course in African studies with me. She asked the group what our thoughts on Robert Mugabe were. One person said that he is a tyrannical dictator who has done the Zimbabwean people a great injustice. The rest of the group nodded in agreement presuming that was all on the topic, until I chimed in: “ I think he is one of the last African nationalists trying to get Zimbabwe out  of western economic dependence but hasn’t done it in a great way for the people.” At this point you would have heard the crickets. The group was stunned I had said something that wasn’t the exact first line read off a Wikipedia page.

Make no mistake, I do not claim to be an expert on this topic or any other for that matter. You are welcome to disagree with me. This opinion is merely the result of many discussions I have had with people who are well informed, from academic readings and yes, Google searches. My point is that global topics seem be homogenised because of the hegemony of search engines.

Google is ranked the number one search engine. The number two spot is held by Youtube, which just so happens to be owned by Google since 2006. Google’s mission is to organise all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Don’t worry I double checked by googling it on my chrome browser... on my android phone. If we take a close look at that mission statement, there are a few questions the philosophy student in me annoyingly wants to ask. Organise the world’s information according to which logic? This would lead me to ask for what agenda. Luckily we can find solace in their motto “do no evil”, but to do no evil for whom? That is also a relative term. All this makes for a pretty scary picture considering that it is a multi-billion dollar corporation that hasn’t deleted any search query since the 1990’s. But I digress.

Google is not only a top destination site but it also powers many other search engines such as our very own UCT site. The gravity of this situation only came clear to me during the time Libya was trending on Twitter. All the major news channels and sites painted a similar picture; the people of the oil-rich North African state had enough of their tyrannical dictator. As one might expect; this made for great discussions on ‘’Jammie’’ steps.

A person who was always just brushed off by everybody, including me as your run-of-the mill conspiracy theorist, had an alternative theory. He believed that the coup was orchestrated by western powers to look like a civil war. Apparently Gaddafi refused US Dollars for oil and wanted the actual gold that the Dollars represented. He was encouraging other oil rich nations to do the same. America being heavily in debt, could not allow this. It definitely made for an interesting story. It made me wonder if there are any other similar reports of this event available on reputable sites.

Naturally, I played a lazy modern day George from Famous Five. I wanted to go about my mini investigation as a layman just looking for a little information. Of course I started with Google. The first couple of pages of results were from American sites. Many had military insignia. All of which, still kept to the mainstream ideas. Then I tried obscure sites like Aardvark. Similar results were presented; low and behold it was powered by Google. Such was the case as my investigation went on which included Libyan sites that were in English.

I’m not saying that Google is directly responsible for perpetuating America’s capitalist agenda, as my conspiracy theorist friend would put it. The founders appeared not to have malicious intent or political bias when they came up with their revolutionary Page Links method to rank results according to relevance oh so many years ago. It seems to me like this is a case of the child becoming too big for the mother.

Without sounding too much like a conspiracy theorist, it is great having such access to information. However, Google has been compared to Skynet for a reason. We need to have a healthy awareness of the source of information we access on our smartphones.

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