Thinking “I should look that up”

Not long ago when listening to the band [Menomena][] I thought to myself, “I should look up more about them.” It’s a pretty mundane thought, in fact one I have pretty regularly through the day, not about Menomena, but about things in general, including books, people, musicians, movies and events.

I posit two interesting things about this thought:

***The potential to act immediately:*** I can act on that thought now, by myself, and immediately. My capacity to search for information is limited only by my mental focus on another task (including the often extremely important task of paying attention to other co-present people). But, assuming I can switch my focus, I can do it almost immediately. I’m neither going to wait and ask my friends nor go to a library, record store or magazine rack. I just pick up my phone or type in my computer a search for “Menomena”. Often, I search specific storehouses of information, such as [allmusic][], [metacritic][] or if it is something for which I don’t know the right site(s), just Google.

***The premise of action:*** I’m not a medical doctor, private investigator or stock broker. I’m not solving a problem when listening to Menomena, the way a doctor may wish to immediately look up information on a specific ailment, injury or drug. If I don’t look up information the music will still play, and I’ll be none the wiser. But nevertheless, consider listening to music on an Internet enabled device as contrasted with television or radio. An internet-enabled listening device is a sufficient condition of possibility for this sense that acting on this thought is possible and practical. It doesn’t create the thought, but compared to watching a one-way chanel or radio station, it clearly facilitates a different and engaged mode of consumption.

These two interesting points about the thought “I should look up more about X”, reminds me of childhood. When I was a child I enjoyed encyclopedias, dictionaries, price guides and compendiums. I suspect it was less what they contained then their experience as an object that allowed me to search for things. They implied a certain empowerment. I’ve met lots of people who were charmed by the encyclopedia, especially when they were young. I would pour over facts, scan pages and come up with questions that I hoped the encyclopedia might answer. I had friends who would create tables, on loose-leaf paper, of the population of major cities and countries. This was grade 4. I also know a lot of older people who have an encyclopedia in their house and may look something up as reference once in a blue moon. When asked why they purchased such a little-used set of books, they say it is for ‘the children’.

The encyclopedia experience is all grown up now, and it no longer lives in static pages stacked on living room shelves. But it is not just Wikipedia, it is searchable knowledge in general. I wouldn’t conflate this encyclopedia experience with Web 2.0 or a ‘network society’. It is merely one small slice of the attitude adjustment and difference in being-in-the-world that is suggested by the Internet. Certainly not a revolution, but why not consider it an evolution? The thought “I should look that up” is not mundane at all. It’s a sign of empowerment in the face of streams of one-way communication. It indicates social cohesion when it is premised on the idea that you can get accurate or at least “proper” information from outside, often community driven, sources. It indicates progress of some kind when the search results become increasingly coherent without being redundant. It’s a testament to freedom (along that very thin line between thought and action) when it is not followed up by “I better not”.

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