The World at our Fingertips

This week’s post was inspired by a sentence from the excellent essay 13 Right Now. This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing by Jessica Contrera, Washington Post:

The whole world is at her fingertips and it has been for years.

I read this book last year where the hero and villain chased each other across several countries to acquire secret technology that would rule the world. It had jet planes and speedboats and was written in the late nineties. The secret technology was described as the ability to connect all the world’s encyclopedias so that someone could type a word into a computer and learn everything there is to know about that thing. It would make education available to all, raise the standard of living for the poor, equalize disparate classes, and topple secret governments. The Internet.

060816 flyingfingers

If only I could think of the name of the book because it would be marvelous to quote from. Search technology pioneered by Google and others was only five to six years away from being fully available to this author, yet he didn’t see it coming as quickly as it did. He also completely missed predicting its impact.

What was that book? All of you book readers know the sheer volume that passes across our nightstands. I’m in the middle of four books right now. The plots blur. I started putting a list together this year of what I read, which I thought was overkill, but now seems fortuitous. The list is on my phone; I rarely write lists on paper anymore because I am forever forgetting where I put the lists. I scan my phone. None of the titles seem right, although I end up going online to look up a few; I’ve already forgotten things I read in February.

When I read this book, I do remember being at home and pointing out the plot device to my spouse. I was in the La-Z-Boy, and I think it was warm outside. Maybe summer? The book was kind of heavy, and the writer wrote long passages, rather clumsily as I recall.  It was dense, so that leaves out the Da Vinci code clone paperbacks.  It was definitely hardback. A spy novel? I read a lot of those. Maybe Baldacci or Behrenson — in the library, there’s a table for math tutors which physically separates fiction from science fiction, making the shelves of As & Bs easiest to browse through. It sounds silly to try to remember via physical cues. Supposedly, we can look everything up online and read everything on e-readers, but memory triggers better with something physical, something that involves the five senses.

I google “books that predicted the Internet.” There are references to Mark Twain, The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Neuromancer, and Asimov. Asimov’s Foundation series was voted Best Science Fiction All-Time Series in 1966, even before the huge explosion in science fiction that started in the 1970s. Foundation is an amazing series. The Galactic Empire of 25,000 years is crumbling, and a group of scientists and philosophers stave off the coming dark ages by hiding the combined knowledge of the galaxy – the universe’s encyclopedia – from invading armies. I read it first in 1978 and then again just recently and was surprised in the first chapter when the hero stepped off a space shuttle… and bought a newspaper. Asimov couldn’t predict a society without paper, not even after 25,000 years.

What was this book about saving the world with Internet search technology? The Internet is not helping me. I don’t know enough about it to make a keyword search effective. Then a lightbulb.  I ask my wife if she remembers me discussing the book. Our collective memory is stronger than my own, even though memory can be faulty and selective. (We have an infamous domestic disagreement about the color of a car we both saw in 1977). She does remember the conversation – hallelujah! – but doesn’t remember the book.  But she has a great idea:  Does the library have a list of what we read?

Look at that—a Reading History. I search through 2015. Geez, I read a lot of mysteries. I wouldn’t have labelled myself a mystery reader. Total Control by David Baldacci from last July, is that it? I don’t remember the plot. I look it up on the Internet. The many summaries of this book mention plane crashes, encryption codes, FBI agents, triple homicides – nothing about the actual thing that the bad guys are trying to find. I try to find a library eBook version but all the Bay Area copies are checked out, along with the physical copies near my branches. At last, a key clue. It’s a reference in a descriptive note in the middle of a short review in the Comment section of the San Francisco Public Library description of the Large Print version: “Novel written around the advent of the Internet… it’s a little dated.” Eureka! I’m certain this was the book, even though I can’t quote from it.

It may seem strange to conduct such a frenzied search just to track down a book or a quote from a few random pages. Those who may know my eccentricities will recognize my insatiable desire to be factually accurate at all times, and Google’s siren song is hard to resist. But such is the fool’s gold lure of the Internet. You search because you want to know right now, but knowledge is not necessarily at your fingertips if you don’t know where to look. Facts are useful, but not knowledge. The entire Internet spread before you won’t always help to connect A to B, draw scientific conclusions, or remember what you did or didn’t read. Your memories have gaps, are selective, and are often stored with a trigger linked to physical cues. You just have to remember what it is.



I wrote this piece two weeks ago (for class) intending it to be a clever and ironic put down of the Internet. But, upon reflection, my argument doesn’t clearly reject the notion that “the world is at our fingertips.” The search was not linear: is it there? no, the Internet failed me. Instead, it was circular.  I would not have found the answer without being able to search online in multiple places, using different variations of searching. On the way, I came across other rabbit holes to delve into, e.g.. what did Mark Twain write about the Internet? And useful tools, like finding that your reading history is cached by the Library. The Internet has become symbiotic to us; we feed it and we consume it. We can no longer either simply accept or reject the siren song.


I finally located a copy of the book, and I suppose I was exaggerating. But you can judge. Here are two excerpts from David Baldacci’s Total Control:

……Let’s say you want to find about every article written on some controversial subject, and you also want a summary of those articles…if you attempted that on your own… it would take you forever…tapping into [CyberCom’s] satellite-based network, it will explore every molecule…of the Internet until it assembles, in picture-perfect form, the answer to every single question you asked, and many more you weren’t perceptive enough to ask… [p.176]

Poverty, prejudice, crime, injustice, disease will crumble under the sheer weight of information, of discovery. Ignorance will simply disappear. The knowledge of thousands of libraries, the sum of the world’s greatest minds, all will be readily accessible by anyone. [p.236]

0 Replies to “The World at our Fingertips”

  1. Great post cuz. The quotes are interesting – he got the facts “right” but the outcome totally wrong (so far). A utopian fantasy…

    Also… I bet your post will be as incorrect / out-of-date as his was in 5 years. You likely will be able to casually wonder aloud “what was that book about the internet and the guy and the mystery…?” and your phone/embedded device/digital nosepiece will find the answer and respond in a perfectly clear sentence with annotations without you asking. Or that won’t happen.

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