Imagination… Or The Time When There Were No Google…

August 31, 2016

A Mr. Magazine™ Musing…

Rainbow in yardWhen you consider that someone had to imagine Google, or the Internet, for that matter, you may wonder why I’m concerned. However, when sudden realization dawns in your gray matter, the way that it did in mine, about what kind of havoc having every piece of information you could possibly ask for at the touch of your fingertips could wreak on future generations, let alone our own, I think you’ll understand the validity of this discussion.

Let me start where Google, and cyberspace, cannot: the beginning.

When I travel abroad; I visit the newsstands first, then I visit a lot of museums in many different countries, and I’ve always been amazed by all of the beautiful and provocative paintings from famous artists such as Rembrandt and Diego Velázquez. These are paintings by some of the masters of the 17th century. They had no digital images and no Internet, yet the paintings are so detailed. Though there were no pictures or other visuals to necessarily influence their work, their imaginations were so vivid and their research tactics so detailed they were able to visualize how history actually presented itself.

true romance True Story

Fast forward to a time when we first had magazines in the U.S. Magazines like True Romance or True Story that would tell us tales of romance. The late Professor William Howard Taft at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of “Magazines in the Eighties,” used to tell me while I was helping him collect data and magazines for his book, “but when that moment came and the couple retired to their boudoir, the bedroom door was slammed in your face penthouseplayboyand your imagination took over. Then Playboy magazine came along and flung the bedroom door open wide and invited us inside. Penthouse hit the scene with a shockingly blatant sweep of its scintillating hand and literally pulled the sheets from the couples’ bodies, showing us things we had only before imagined.” And if I may add, then the Internet came along and nothing was sacred anymore. Not even your imagination.

It was after pondering these intriguing points of fact that I began to formulate a question in my brain: when you have access to everything, both good and bad, what happens to your imagination?

After that initially disturbing self-inquiry, other questions began to hit in rapid succession: What’s going to happen to our future? What’s going to happen to the importance of research and study? Will we ever discover anything again if we have all-access at our fingertips? With a click of the mouse, we can answer any questions our brains can come up with in mere moments.

In previous years (translated: before Google and its cyber-relatives), if I wanted to know something I would go to the library and start digging through different books. And invariably, as I was searching through these things, looking for what I originally sought, I would be delightedly surprised to find something else that I did not know about, and in fact, had no idea that I even wanted to know about until discovering it. Are those types of moments gone forever?

With the dependence and importance that we put on the Internet each and every day, are we significantly damaging our interpretative and cognitive research and study skills? It is a most legitimate question, and one that is disturbing when we consider the weight of our online presence.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and speaker. Greenfield is Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University, and was Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology. She is also interested in the neuroscience of consciousness and the impact of technology on the brain. In an article she wrote for The Guardian, titled “We are at risk of losing our imagination,” she makes a startling comparison:

When you read a book, the author usually takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree, or one that you enjoy, but none the less, as you turn the pages, one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion. We can then compare one narrative with another and, in so doing, start to build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys, which, in turn, will influence our individualized framework. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance. So, traditional education has enabled us to turn information into knowledge.

 Now imagine there is no robust conceptual framework. You are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The most immediate reaction would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature, the immediate sensory content, the “yuk” and “wow” factor.

You would be having an experience rather than learning. The sounds and sights of a fast-moving multimedia presentation displace any time for reflection, or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections we might make as we turn the pages, and then stare at a wall to reflect upon them.

So, today, are folks turning information into knowledge without the proper conceptual framework? And what about the creative side of things for all of us? What about our imaginations? If we can’t imagine the outcome, if we always have the answers to each and every question at our fingertips; how do we weave dreams and fantasize about “Somewhere over the Rainbow” when we can find out with a click that it doesn’t exist?

These are questions that are impactful because they’re relative to our futures and the futures of our children and grandchildren. These are questions that we should all ask ourselves whenever we tell one of those impressionable minds to pull up a seat at the computer and ask Google.

Until next time…

See you at the library or better yet at the newsstands…

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