TCS Daily

What Do You Want to Know?

By Robert McHenry - September 28, 2005 12:00 AM

What Do You Want to Know?

For many years I held that question in mind, as it was my business to write, edit, and see into publication a number of works of reference, whose purpose was to inform persons who desired to know something. At one time, perhaps temporarily insane from having taken some courses in marketing, I even urged, in vain, that the company I worked for use that question as its advertising lead.

Its merits as a marketing hook aside, I never had any reason to doubt the utility or the propriety of the question itself. Now I'm beginning to wonder if the question is permissible at all.

"What do you want to know?" I imagine myself asking in some sort of forum.

"Objection!" says someone. I have been watching too many lawyer shows on TV.


"Very well," I concede somewhat testily. "What, if anything, do you want to know?"

My elementary forensic error was to assume a fact not in evidence.

Aristotle began his essay "On the Soul" with the assertion that "All men by nature desire to know." He could do that because he was merely writing an essay. He'd never have gotten away with it in a court of law, at least not on television. I wish he were here now to try it, though, because I should very much like to have a look at his evidence.

Do all men -- that is to say, translating from the ancient Greek, do all people -- really, really desire to know? Or are we satisfied, most of the time, with being merely certain?

Certainly, we are surrounded in these times by certainty. It would not be too much to say that we are awash in it. Magazines, newspapers, talk radio, cable TV, the blogosphere -- all these pressure-relieving devices that collectively constitute the m-word -- all of them flood us daily, hourly, with a hundred varieties and a thousand flavors of certainty. I would argue, in fact, that this is the Age of Certitude far more than it is the Age of Information.

The A. of I. has been touted for a number of years, now, and the idea is beginning to wear thin. It was based on the supposition that sheer quantity was the necessary and sufficient condition. In the usual metaphor, skinny little pipes were replaced by great big he-man pipes, and suddenly we were in the Promised Land, or anyway Tomorrowland. That and a Starbucks, and what more could an enlightened people want or need?

The flaw in the theory of Information Ageism is that little improvement has been made to the final stage of distribution, the human processor. Continuing the hydraulic metaphor, our situation is sometimes likened to attempting to drink from a firehose, but this is inapt. We are not so much overwhelmed by the force and quantity of the flow as we are seduced by the ease of ignoring most of it. With megabytes and terabytes and whatever-Greek-prefix-is-next-bytes on tap, any one of us can find a manageable part of the stream that is easy to swallow and congenial to our private taste and -- and this is the crucial thing -- amply sufficient to our need.

This is not to suggest that the one-newspaper towns or the three-channel television era were better places or times. It is simply to point out that we haven't yet arrived at the Big Rock Candy Mountain and that wider pipes and faster clock speeds and vaster digitized resources are not going to get us there.

A dozen years ago, as the worldwide network was being mapped out and premature celebration of the A. of I. was just getting underway, there was much talk of the problem of the "last mile," the last link that joins each individual user to the Internet. This was an issue at a time when the really fast modems ran at 1400 baud. That problem disappeared almost as soon as it was named, as engineering problems often do. Now we have the "final ten centimeters" problem: the problem of what happens after all that information hits the retina or the cochlea and has to be made sense of. This one is not open to engineering solution.

It was that long ago, while I was involved in a small way in a project to optimize the search engine that would be part of the online version of the Encyclopædia Britannica, that a thought-experiment occurred to me. Suppose the editors were to insert the word "not" into every sentence or clause that did not already have it, and delete it from every one that did. This would reverse the sense, the meaning, of every statement in the encyclopedia. What difference would it make to the search engine or in its report of "relevant" responses to any query? Answer: none whatever. On the other hand, I felt sure that it would make a difference to some readers, or end-users, as we call them nowadays, especially to those who had reposed some material reliance upon what they end-used.

Listening to talk radio, or watching cable news, or reading -- sorry, end-using -- blogs and their commenters, one can hardly escape the suspicion that a great many of our fellow citizens are content to use the most advanced information systems in history for what my father's Boy Scout Handbook called "self-pollution." There is no conspiracy theory so outré, no political position so extreme, no notion so absurd, that it does not have not one but many websites devoted to its promotion and defense. And attending each is a chorus singing dithyrambs for those of the faith. And the reigning virtue in each? Certitude. Absolute, unshakeable, fingers-in-their-ears certitude.

What of the liberal (in the, you know, nice sense) ideal of viewpoints competing in the marketplace of ideas? Hah! Look at a few of the more committed sites; opposing views are ignored, caricatured, or damned as blackest villainy and treason. For many, the opposition is almost literally not human. No doubters, no debaters, no truth-seekers, no honest brokers need apply.

What makes this worrisome is that this is, increasingly, the political tenor of the national conversation, if "conversation" is the word when a large and growing proportion of those present only have eyes and ears for what they already believe that they know. They don't need to listen; and, more and more, they have no time to listen, for every day that great fat pipe dumps all they can absorb of the Truth right in their personal troughs.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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