Friday, November 25, 2011

Old guys in bow ties

The internet has taken the donkey-work out of academic research, and devalued personal memory and expertise. Much of my research time in the past was taken up leafing through neglected volumes in 'research collections' (i.e. the stuff nobody reads anymore if they ever did) of academic libraries, scanning back-of-the-book indexes, and very occasionally turning up unexpected links between thinkers and bringing to light forgotten comments and analyses and predictions which often seemed to give the lie to commonly accepted views on intellectual history (where the focus tended and perhaps still tends to be on a few intellectual 'stars' who are credited with more originality and prescience than they had in reality).

Now, thanks to search engines etc., one can do in a few minutes what previously took months of searching. The dusty research collections have been or are being digitized - but what of the experts, the old guys with bow ties whom one valued highly for their lifetime's worth of knowledge? One of the pleasures of researching a topic was interacting with these often-eccentric people, chatting with them, making hurried notes as they gave one important clues and names to follow up on. Such mentors are fading out of the picture as so much of what they had to tell can be found now online.

But still there are questions of a type which Google doesn't really seem equipped to answer. Specific questions that an individual might have come up with in the course of reading or research require interlocutors who can put themselves in the position of the questioner - who can empathize intellectually. Or sometimes one is interested in the relationship between this and that - and a Google search will give one all there is to know on this and all there is to know on that, but never the twain shall meet (or at least not in the way one wants).

And then there are fundamental questions about the worthwhileness (for me or in general) of this or that subject area, this or that profession. This type of question is often the most important of all - and a human mentor (preferably old and learned) is definitely called for.