approximation and estimation in the digital age

This is a wildly speculative post.  It may be that some of the speculations below have been well researched by others, and if they have been and if you would happen to know, I would be interested in knowing who those others might be and what they’ve written on these.

There are things I believe to be true, facts about the world as it currently is, facts that I understand on an intellectual, rational level.  When I think about these facts and hold these thoughts for a few seconds in my head, I say to myself, yes I see how that is true.  They make sense to me.

One of the most basic of these things I believe to be true is that the power of the written word is diminishing.  And before you get angry and start ranting, let me ask for your patience and for a bit of time to explain what I mean.   

The human activity of writing is a few thousand years old.  Before the invention of alphabets and writing, and probably even for some short time after, we humans carried our knowledge around in our heads, in the stories that we told one another around our campfires. 

Perhaps, as some suspect, we used the stories we told to encode facts we have laboriously and painstakingly discovered about our world.  It was reading Hamlet’s Mill by de Santillana and von Dechend that first raised this possibility in my mind, and this idea of how humans use myth rang true with me.   But regardless, without writing we would have had no choice but to keep and transmit our history and our acquired knowledge in our stories.

This changed with the invention of the written word.  Much to the resentment of some of our predecessors, it became possible to store our history outside of our heads.  Facts about our world were still difficult and expensive to acquire, but the facts so acquired could then be safely stored, subject only to the occasional transcription error or catastrophic all consuming fire.

Universities and monasteries became the repositories of human knowledge, holding our accumulated facts.  This repository nature of universities persists and this persistence has some implications for universities, but this is something to explore elsewhere.

My generation grew up reading.  We had television as well, and movies, but both are relatively static media, in the sense that production costs are high and the product is not particularly interactive.  When we needed to find a fact, we went to the library, or to an encyclopaedia at home, and we read the fact and around that fact.

One of the joys of my early days was doing exactly this, finding the book on the shelf for which I was searching, and then looking at and looking through the books whose only attraction was that they were near it on the shelf.

But I’m beginning to think that the younger generation doesn’t have this opportunity.  There is a disadvantage to using Google, to the current digital age.  This disadvantage is that the digital world does not easily lend itself to approximation, and to estimation.  With the digital, we come to expect exactness, and exactness is limited.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but one thing that I’ve seen in the students I teach is that they don’t understand how to estimate or approximate.  They understand exactness, but they become uncomfortable if taken a bit out from within the lines.  I would be interested to know if this is something that others have encountered.

~ by Jim Anderson on 31 January 2016.

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