Do we really need to know all this stuff?

The other day I was in my marketing class and the guest lecturer decided to hold a contest.

The task: guess the meaning of some marketing acronyms (stuff like CPC, CPI, and others).

The prize: A William Shatner bobble-head doll (the lecturer happened to be the CMO of priceline.com).

At some point during the contest, he put up a really tough acronym and asked, “all right, who knows this one?” A student shouted out the answer. The CMO, impressed, said “Very nice. Now can you tell us what that means?” When the student hesitated a bit, the CMO called his bluff:

“Did you just look that up on Google?”

“Yes.”

“Ok, does anyone else know what it means?”

The class went on, but I couldn’t get this exchange out of my head. Had this lecturer given the student maybe 5 more seconds, he could have told the class what the acronym means, and probably more accurately than anybody else. In our results-based world, does it really matter what source he got the information from? Does it matter whether the student learned the acronym in a class last semester, at a job two years ago, or on google 5 seconds ago?

Another situation. In BYU’s music civilization classes, part of the examination is to listen to a clip of a musical arrangement and correctly identify the composer and name of the piece. In one of the exam prep lectures Holly attended, a student piped up and told the teacher that there was an app that can listen to music and correctly identify the song for you. The teacher, caught off guard, said something to the effect of “well if you’re so technical that you can figure that out then go ahead and use it.” He clearly didn’t realize that it was as simple as downloading it for free from the app store. Apparently, history teachers don’t usually follow tech trends. Who knew?

We are coming to a point in time where access to the “sum of all human knowledge” is turning traditional learning upside down. More and more of what you learn in school is freely available online. We are starting to ask ourselves if we really need to know all these things, or if we just need to know how to find them.Siri answers, "what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

 

Knowing how to find them is getting incredibly easy. Google images lets you “search by image” by dragging an image from your desktop to their search bar. Then it finds a bunch of images that look just like it (useful for identifying art, famous locations, flowers, and more). It’s not perfect but it’s getting better. Apple’s Siri (on the iPhone 4S) is voice activated and integrated with Wolfram Alpha, so all you have to do is ask your phone a question and it will literally give you the answer. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not perfect but it’s getting better.

As these things get better and better, it won’t be long until everyone will be able to find the answer to anything under every possible circumstances.

Of course we aren’t there yet. Phones with internet access are not yet affordable to everyone. Networks are getting bigger but we still can’t get coverage everywhere. But honestly, it is just a matter of time until these issues are gone. Then what? We need to determine the value in memorizing something once, only to forget it again (if there is value at all). We need to ask ourselves what really needs to be learned and what is sufficient to be looked up later. Until we do this, we will be wasting our time and effort with unnecessary and expensive “education.” Tomorrow’s generation will not tolerate such waste.

Of course, an argument can always be made to keep things the way they are. Maybe by eliminating the rote memorization of facts and figures we are losing something more. Something cultural.

I remember myself as a 13-year-old boy, sitting by the campfire while my Scoutmaster delivered an oratorical poetic masterpiece of cowboy lore about breaking horses. For five minutes he took us along on this wonderful adventure with stirring lyrics and clever rhyme, completely memorized and delivered effortlessly–almost magically–by heart. It was just cool. Reading it off a paper isn’t the same… not when the fire is low and the stars are out and even the simplest soul cannot help but sit and wonder. To some degree, this art of storytelling is almost already gone.

Yes the world is changing. We will become more and more reliant on the “sum of all human knowledge” for our basic information needs. How far will we go? Will cops of the future be reading you your Miranda rights from their smartphone?

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