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Knowing: What it’s Worth

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Exactly 13 months ago today, Wolfram|Alpha, a self-billed “Computational Knowledge Engine,” went online. It was hailed as a new type of search engine. Unlike Google or Yahoo!, Wolfram|Alpha wasn’t made to scan the entire web for relevant articles and content. Instead, it was built to deliver objective, factual data on the search topic as well as solve complex mathematical queries.

For instance, search “barrel of oil” in Wolfram|Alpha and instead of a slew of articles about the Gulf spill, you’ll get a collection of facts about oil barrels. Search “Chuck Norris” on Wolfram|Alpham, and instead of facts like “Chuck Norris sheds his skin twice a year,” all you’ll get are his hometown and birth date. Boring, yes.

Having been designed largely for academic and scientific purposes, Wolfram|Alpha is a powerful tool for everything from solving calculus equations, to doing a quick calorie audit of what you had for breakfast. The point being, it only yields results that are demonstrably true.

So the question is, with today’s students enjoying the unmatched research power of Google and Wikipedia along with Wolfram|Alpha for the math homework, is personal knowledge losing value? Are we transitioning from a society of “knowers” to a society of “finders”? Is this a good thing?

I’m not quite sure, but a strong argument can be made that traditional learning, i.e. repeating, understanding and storing information, is quickly becoming obsolete. These days, the answer to virtually any question you can think of is only a web search away, and with mobile technology, access is abundant.

While genuinely knowing things will never go out of style (I’d hope), it seems to be ceding ground to knowing how to find things. With our collective human knowledge growing at an exponential rate, perhaps this is as it should be; I guess only time will tell. However, it does seem that while personal knowledge will never become worthless, it’s certainly becoming worth less. 😉

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