Everything you need to know

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Written by Robert Valentine, senior lecturer of advertising

The great gift of the 20th century must surely be the computer.

For those dear readers who don’t remember the 20th century, the computer is what we used to remember, calculate and entertain us before the cellphone. In the early days of its development, around the end of World War II, computers were as big as houses and could occupy whole buildings.

Then vacuum tubes (we had those, too) were replaced by transistors (I’m not making this up), and then by semi-conductors and then by printed circuitry. This made it possible for powerful computers to be made in relatively smaller and smaller dimensions.

Eventually, the computer became as small as a deck of cards (forerunner of the Game Boy) and you could carry it around in a pocket. It may seem hard to believe, but people also used to live in trees and spent their time looking for water, berries and a nice place to sleep without being eaten by dinosaurs (this is the part that’s made up) or tax collectors.

All of this you know, or at least have the power to know. After all, you have a cellphone.

This device can do calculations at speeds far faster than the quickest mathematical mind. It can remember dates, phone numbers, arcane facts about sports or entertainers or rap stars – all the important things. It is also a still camera, video camera, audio recorder, stopwatch, alarm clock, personal secretary and, in the big, newer models equipped with four legs, a coffee table.

Many people use their phones (we can drop the “cell” part since landlines are now reserved for  archaic institutions such as governments, typewriter manufacturers and grandmothers) to entertain themselves while waiting for life to arrive. Some use them to communicate with others.

In fact, since the phone is a computer, it has access to all the information that has been digitally encoded somewhere on the planet. Assuming that all the information that is digitally encoded was encoded accurately, your phone knows everything.

And that’s the problem.

As it turns out, your phone is smarter than you. I know mine is much smarter than I am since it knows by wife’s phone number while I (I’m not kidding) do not. Your phone, like mine, can bring the knowledge of the world to your fingertips.

Since you have access to all the knowledge, it also means that people who want you to have their bit of knowledge can send it to you. You will now have more knowledge than you can handle unless you get rid of something – like the stuff you need for Monday’s history exam.

Sherlock Holmes once told his friend Watson that “the mind is like an attic; if you use it to store rubbish, you will not have space for the things that matter.” This is a rough paraphrase, but it’s pretty accurate in terms of  intent. That is: you can’t know everything, but your phone can.

Sadly, your phone has no judgement. It values the “muzzle velocity of a 16-inch naval rifle” just as highly as your girlfriend’s birthday (vital data).

We have to use this newfound power responsibly so the world doesn’t become a repository of numbingly useless drivel. We cannot retain all information. After all, we are not computers; we are merely shaved monkeys. And now, each monkey has a cellphone.