The web is changing not just how we think about knowledge, but how we think about its absence.
Yesterday's news that Dick Clark had died at the age of 82 was met not only with surprise and sadness, but also with some confusion.
who is dick clark?-- Joshua Rivera (@supersloth) April 18, 2012
I don't know who Dick clark is-- Coolio (@ol4Ni3L) April 18, 2012
I feel so bad for not knowing who dick clark is :T-- Jus†ιnnnnη_♥ (@Jayqotchu_Like) April 19, 2012
who is Dick Clark?-- abby akers (@aaabbykirsten) April 19, 2012
Is it bad that I have no idea who Dick Clark is? #oopsies-- Kaley Prier (@ShutupkkKaley) April 19, 2012
Go ahead and call me a dumbass.. But who the hell is dick Clark?! #fillmein-- Zac Conn (@Zconn421) April 19, 2012
It's totally legitimate that younger people wouldn't know who Dick Clark is. It's totally legitimate, even, that older people wouldn't know who Dick Clark is: "American Bandstand" is not the most contemporary of shows, and most of us are doing other things on December 31 than watching "New Year's Rockin' Eve." What's interesting, though, is what the tweeters above -- and their thousands of fellow "Who's Dick Clark?" queriers -- did with their ignorance. Rather than do a Google search for "Dick Clark," rather than look him up on Wikipedia, rather than avail themselves of the approximately 5,000 other web-based mechanisms that exist solely to rectify the world's ignorance, these people asked their followers on Twitter.
For some of them, the question might have been simply ironic -- or, more specifically, an ironic declaration of generational/sociological affiliation. (Who's Justin Bieber?) For many, though, the question seemed like an honest one: "Guys, I don't know this person everyone's talking about. Help me out." It wasn't just that the "Who's Dick Clark" crowd were embracing their ignorance; it was that, through Twitter, they were trying to rectify it.
But they were also publicizing it. Rather than taking the relatively introverted route toward satisfying their curiosity -- Google, Bing, Wikipedia, platforms that treat a question as a silent transaction between mind and machine -- the "Who's Dick Clark?" Twitterers asked their question openly and publicly. They chose to broadcast their ignorance.
And that choice is a new thing. In the past, ignorance has been, you know, something to be ashamed of. To call someone "ignorant" has been, generally, to insult that someone; and it's been an insult specifically because ignorance is an accusation that assaults not just a person's knowledge, but a person's intelligence. It's no coincidence that, etymologically, "ignorant" is connected with "uncouth." We have construed ignorance as a matter of personal failing.
But that's been an unfair -- and, to a large extent, self-defeating -- conflation. There is, of course, a world of difference between ignorance, the conditional state, and unintelligence, the permanent condition. And we ignore that difference at our peril. You don't have to be Socrates to appreciate that ignorance itself has a generative value.
What the Dick Clark tweeters hint at, today, is the reappropriation of ignorance. These people refuse to be ashamed of the need to question something. On the contrary, they publicize their questioning. And they assume -- actually, they recognize and declare -- that the questioning is perfectly acceptable. Not knowing, they suggest, is simply a situation that can, like hunger or thirst, be easily transformed into another situation: satisfaction, knowledge, fulfillment.
Which is actually a much more realistic attitude than the traditional ignorance-as-shameful assumptions. The world, after all, has always teemed with information that is too vast to know; the difference now is that the web, with its fixed frenzy of facts, is a constant reminder of that vastness. It is a perpetual reminder of our perpetual ignorance.
And, given all the new platforms that exist solely for the purpose of satisfying curiosity, the web is also a reminder of our perpetual knowledge. The answers, for the most part, are there for us; we just need to take the step of asking the questions. So while it's easy to make fun of the people who broadcast their ignorance, it's much better to celebrate them. They're a collective reminder that, with the world's knowledge newly at our fingertips, the only thing worse than ignorance is indifference.
A big hat tip to Andrew Phelps.