“Big a yard and small abroad” goes an old saying. And since I was in Canada on March 8th it certainly rang true for me about the North East St. Ann by election. The Jamaican newspapers that week talked of little else, but in the Canadian media it warranted no mention at all. Which is hardly surprising. After all Jamaicans don’t pay attention to Canadian by elections either.


Indeed the news from other countries that made the Canadian papers were nearly all disaster related. The cliché “no news is good news” is certainly true. Except for America of course. Thanks to its media power almost anything of even minor interest that happens in the USA is carried all over the world. No matter where you live today America has become almost a second homeland, so pervasive is its presence through movies, television, radio and the internet.


And it was the internet that enabled me to follow all the twists and turns of the North East St. Ann by election even though I was thousands of miles away. What a contrast to my time at school in Canada when I had only a sketchy idea of what was going on back home. In 1989 even phone calls overseas were expensive luxuries and you could only get rushed generalizations on those brief hurried talks. In 2001 I was able to login everyday on the go-jamaica, jamaicaobserver, radiojamaica and homeviewjamaica websites and even hear live cricket commentary. And on a flat rate internet connection all this is basically free.


At the height of the dotcom mania that was sweeping America only a year ago, enthusiasts kept justifying exorbitant internet stock prices by repeating “the net changes everything”. Contrarians would answer “except human nature”. With the Nasdaq technology stock index having collapsed from 5,000 to below 2,000 the skeptics seem to have been proven right.


But the collapse of the dotcom stocks does not mean the internet is just hype. I was not a “e-believer” at first, but logging on has definitely altered my mental landscape. Now I can literally find out about anything happening anywhere instantaneously and be as informed about world current affairs as anyone in New York or London. Cable television is also a great informer. But the difference between the world wide web and CNN is that television only puts on what its editors decide and at a certain hour. On the net you can look up whatever you want whenever you choose to.


Imagine the situation in a few years when slow and unreliable phone lines are things of the past and everyone has broadband connections. Not only will web pages load immediately and entire encyclopedias be instantaneously accessible, but television and movies will be available at will. Maybe the internet gurus who claim that “the web” represents the greatest information explosion since Gutenberg invented the printing press are right.


Indeed the days of the paper printed book are numbered. It is only a matter of time before a cheap portable device is invented on which anything can be downloaded instantly, from today’s newspaper to War and Peace. Sentimentalist bibliophiles might mourn the “death” of the book. But frankly printed paper is only the most current method of collecting words. The clay tablet, the papyrus scroll and the handwritten tome all had their day. So must ink and paper print give way to electronic type.


Computer screens are not yet as reader friendly as ink on paper, but they soon will be. And the huge advantage of e-books is that you can vary the size of the print on the page. As we get older the lens in our eyeballs inexorably harden and vision slowly deteriorates, and so it gets increasingly harder to read normal print without reading glasses. Computer screens can vary font sizes at will, and this advantage alone makes the ascendancy of the e-book inevitable.


Still, it is unlikely that paper books will completely vanish. Because many will still want physical representations of works they have enjoyed. After all to lovers of words there is something indefinably pleasing about surveying a collection of books they have read and loved or look forward to reading with anticipation. “A room without books is like a body without a soul” Cicero once remarked, and truly a room of good books is like a gathering of the wisest and most interesting human beings that ever lived. Contemplating a computer disk– even if it contains every word that has ever been written - can never be the same.


But to some technology visionaries such changes will be only minor side effects of the electronic information revolution. Computers and the internet they say, will not only make more knowledge available, the scale of this knowledge will alter the way in which humans think.


Yet while knowledge may be power, information is not knowledge. And too much information can leave us confused and unable to think at all. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” asked T.S. Eliot as far back as 1934.


What we do with what we know is far more important than how much we know. “One might as well expect to get wise by reading books as to get strong by eating” goes an ancient proverb. Shakespeare was ignorant about the workings of the world compared to the average schoolboy today. But no computer will ever be able to replicate what he did.


After all a book is not merely a collection of words, it is an author’s attempt to answer why, how, when, where or what. To think is to ask questions, to search for meanings. And no matter how powerful computers get, their job will always be to solve problems which originate in the human mind. When the “Deep Blue” computer defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov wags quipped “Yes, but how does it feel about winning?”


And as a witty scientist remarked when asked about the possibility of artificially intelligent computers making humans redundant - “I’ll start worrying about computers taking over when one of them runs off with my wife”.

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