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Analyzing the migration of coconuts

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Monday, February 8, 2010

What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Good question. This question baffled nobles in the European days of yore, when it both began and ended the quest of a famous king.

Yet today, the same query does not make or break alliances with prospective Knights of Camelot; this persnickety inquiry now has answers. A lot of them.

If you Google “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow,” the search engine not only auto-completes the question for you but also provides you with more than 42,000 answers. You can read kinematical analyses of swallow flights, respond to forums to share personal opinions on whether coconuts actually migrate and read a treatise dissecting how Monty Python’s eternal question influences our views of impossible but tempting trivialities.

But now for the perhaps the more vexing question of the two we have thus far posed: What is the point?

The Internet changed the way we see information. Information storage once stood secluded in exclusive and territorial libraries or in intricate detailing in book margins. We now store information in huge electronic servers or on the Internet, in open forums that anyone can rip off, copy or add to. For our generation, information-gathering is still luring and promising, but in a different, more open sense.

Information is now cheap. Old way to collect knowledge meant information hoarding, which kicked off in ancient times. If one small group knew something their peers did not, the wiser held a much sturdier chance of survival. This initially instinctive process transformed into the tradition of hoarding of culture and abstract ideas, which culminated in the still-practiced university system we all so credulously patron.

Knowing more information renders one privy to all sorts of benefits. Understanding interpretations of religious literature entitles one to accord in high circles that determine the morals and guidelines of a society. The ability to understand processes of organisms on microscopic levels opened up a whole new concept of science and humanity that affects how we treat disease (or can think of “disease” at all), eat food and have the vocabulary to talk about things like “hygiene” or “nutrients.” And understanding in the sense of being acquainted with people and emotions creates ties and bonds that strengthen power and prestige via circles of confident information.

Advantages to possessing information number as infinitely as information itself (crossing gorges of eternal peril, even), but the real question is, what happens in a society where information freely and instantaneously flows? Nowadays, even university scholars can find simple answers quicker in Wikipedia than they ever could while paging through books.

The Internet provides information cheaply and easily to a revolutionary degree, but it still does not negate the power or value of social circles of privatized information. I sometimes wonder if academia will become obsolete after the Internet has been around long enough. If everyone can access any information whenever they like, it seems that the professional data storage units called “professors” may someday become archaic. But in the next era, data processing and not data storage will prove the most valuable of trades. When everyone has access to any book they like online within seconds, we will value not the information, but those who can peruse and make sense of the tidal waves of data in a cogent and compelling manner.

As students who never knew research in a non-Internet era, children of the late eighties and nineties wield distinct research advantages in our capability to use the tools of the Internet efficiently. However, our reliance on cyber-info also presents problems:

We need to rethink our mindset. The Internet has become a crutch for our intellectual development. Because details on basically anything are searchable and downloadable on the Internet — a kind of one-stop shopping for the curious customer — actually heading to a library or opening up a book on a subject often seems outdated and, frankly, unnecessary.

But gathering data on the Internet won’t help us think. Trivial knowledge that the Internet enables even the least educated of us to have is democratic and good, but it is no substitution for critical intellectual development. Academia differs from the Internet in that it stores data in people instead of machines. Professors and researchers spend their lives dissecting particular subjects. Their condensed knowledge of specific issues is more thorough than any (reasonably-lengthed) Internet source — including ones they wrote. When you talk to a person you can discuss, reason back and forth, instead of simply grabbing information and attempting to apply it to unrelated situations. In reading books and discussing dissertations, we still enter a level of data analyses that the two-dimensional Internet fails to provide.

Asking ridiculous questions can certainly still be positive. Could a five-ounce bird carry a one-pound coconut? Perhaps. But, instead of Googling the query on the Internet, next time maybe you can ask a physics professor or a classmate. Chances are that the answer you’ll get will let you chip in, as well. After all, even King Arthur couldn’t go it alone.


Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a senior History and German major. She is looking forward to her turn acting as a sort of executive officer of the week. You can reach her at jmirando@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.