Encyclopedias and a Networked Universe

A few weeks ago over breakfast a friend of mine asked me how it was that I saw the world the way I do: what was it that taught me to see the world in a connected way? I’d never been asked that before and didn’t know what to tell him. Eventually, however, I realized that I became attuned to relationship in part through early exposure to encyclopedias.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

(c) Ángel Franco/The New York Times

My mother sold encyclopedias during my school-age years, first the World Book series and later Encyclopædia Britannica. These were old-world leather-bound heavy heirloom sets that one displayed in one’s living room and passed down to one’s descendents. I loved that I could read articles on any topic whenever I wished. What I loved even more were the notes at the end of each article: See also and References. These sections connected me with new things to learn, and they challenged or validated what I’d already read. So I grew up immersed in the physical experience of leafing through these books. More importantly, I became acclimated to their logic.

The encyclopedia’s organizing logic is that data can be compiled; and, once compiled, information items can be related. Readers’ knowledge emerges as they link information in ways that make sense, that honor the integrity of each piece of information, and that help them to build a more expansive picture of the world around them and understand it more comprehensively.

The internet we have today amplifies the physical experiences I had with encyclopedias as a child. On the internet, information is networked via hypertext, links, and content tags. Generations of children who won’t grow up with huge physical sets of encyclopedias will grow up instead with this ethereal network as part of their daily, ordinary experience. There are millions around the world who haven’t yet experienced or the logic of symbolic relationships that the internet helps us adjust to: the digital divide is still a thing. But in time many of them will experience the Net, and on mobile phones rather than computers.

I think these technologies are just the latest tool Earth has evolved to help us learn how to see and build relationships among insights, ideas, communities, and people. What have you noticed in your own life? Have internet tools like Google Search, Bing, or Wikipedia changed how you engage and frame symbols, ideas, and experiences? If so, how? Have you ever thought about how two apparently disparate things might be connected? Like “milk” and “Margaret Thatcher”? Or “dragonfly” and “rocking chair”? What are the real-world See Also or Reference items that you rely on as touchstones to challenge or validate the new things you learn each day?

In your life before the internet, what systems for learning and connecting symbols, ideas, and experiences did you (and/or your community) have and use? In this post I emphasized an individual symbolic experience—but as social creatures we shape symbols and create meanings in community with others, not only by ourselves.

If you started a practice of looking for connections among two or three things each day for the next week, what new thoughts might you think? What might you discover?


2 thoughts on “Encyclopedias and a Networked Universe

  1. carobcarrotcake

    The internet has certainly been helpful in teaching us about different perspectives that we may have never acknowledged if we were not exposed. I love your last question about finding connections among two of three things each day and I may just try it. I am not sure what I will find, but I will try it. Thanks!

    1. mackenzian Post author

      You’re welcome. I may share this link on Facebook later today: I’m interested in hearing more about what systems other people used pre-internet to help them organize old information and make sense of the new. I think we’ve always done this, just not using these tools/methods, and not always systematically.


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