Search Me

Sir Francis Bacon, that Renaissance proto-scientist, said “…we either know a thing ourselves or we know where to find it”.

Six centuries before, at a time of the blossoming of the Islamic Golden Age of Science, it is recorded that Abdul Kassam Ismael, Grand Vizier of Persia in the tenth century, carried his library with him wherever he went. The 117,000 volumes were carried by 400 camels trained to walk in impecable alphabetical order. 

If you were the Grand Vizier or at least one of his functionaries, this mobile store of analogue information made finding stuff easier and saved money on overdue library fines.

Knowledge power to the people only started in the 15th century when Gutenberg developed mobile type to replicate documents hitherto laboriously copied by hand. (Centuries before the first movable type, made of  porcelain, had been used  by the Chinese and that was followed  in Korea with a metal version. In both cases the enormous Chinese character set made it impractical. 26 letters floating in a simplified alphabet soup was a different proposition).

It was only with the development of public libraries in the 19th century and the concurrent publication of modern encyclopaedias, a development from the 18th century dictionary, that access to information was  democratized-so long as you knew how to read.  More and more people were, in fact, becoming literate because of the imperatives of the industrial age. Production slowed if people couldn’t tell the difference between the on and off switch and got caught in the assembly line. 

In the last 40 years, with the operation of Moore’s law and the increasing digitisation of  print, aural and visual information,  anyone with a digital device, and the inclination can instantly search their own digital camel train without walking even a mile for it. This includes the free do-it-ourselves Wikipedia and now even the online but not quite free Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

However, retrieving 34,900,000 items on “Camel” in 0.21 of a second is an overabundance of riches. Without pin pricking it is easier for the said camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for us to sort the dates from the detritus. The logic of the logarithm produces instant information log-jams and we need to be aware of erroneous zones and commercial distortions. 

As an alternative to sheer quantity we can choose other filters, which are not necessarily objective but can provide an interesting perspective on things. 

One such filter is, of course, Arts and Letters Daily  the brainchild of Christchurch-based academic and writer Dr Denis Dutton. This simplifies access to a  fascinating smorgasbord of  ideas and information by providing  tantalising bite-sized tastes of essays and articles.

Another, perhaps less well known, is Brasscheck, which aggregates YouTube- type video excerpts with strong takes on political and economic affairs. Here is the link to current post on the 21st century Battle of New Orleans: …Welcome to New Orleans September 2005. The forerunner of America 2009.

Brasscheck items are likely to scare the camels. They are  based on searching questions, not catalogued answers and, like Camels, they have a distinctive flavour. They provide much food for thought and indigestion as the economic crisis plays itself out in the corridors of power and the boardrooms of influence.


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