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May 12, 2009

Experience not required : Geezers, Gurus, and Google

Newbies have data and information — answers to who, what, when, where questions.. People with experience have information, knowledge, and wisdom — who, what, when, where plus how and why.

In the past, when the average person couldn't read and didn't have access to stored information (ie, scrolls and books), the only available information resource was older people, people with experience (PWE). PWEs had seen storms, famines, fires, disease, conquest. They'd experienced the problems of life: family problems, birth and death, and relationships. They had direct knowledge of farm blights, epidemics, and knew how to do things. Young people were taught to respect their elders because the Geezers had the corner on amassed experience.

A few finer points: age by itself does not bequeeth wisdom; there are certainly old idiots. Look at-- well, pick a senior Senator. But in the timeframe under discussion, when survival was not as likely as it is today, survival meant that you'd seen things and have some minimum skill set. It wasn't that every Geezer was an oracle; it was that the Geezers were the only information source around. Also, the role of Geezer as infosource was culturally embedded in a agrarian (that is, First Wave) society.

Sidebar: Toffler described the Three Waves (agrarian, industrial, information) which we can call the three F's: Farms, Factories, and Floppies. It may be that the information sources in those three systems are the three G's: Geezers, Gurus, and Google.

The role of the Geezer as infosource seems to have faded from the conventional practice. The challenge of longevity and the mortality of stupidity have decreased. Literacy, publication, and libraries increased. The general level of education and of access to information increased. Look at an average city, consider all the educated people, and look at the body of information they have access to. They may not need the experience stored in the old folks any more.

Once books and education became widespread, experience wasn't the only teacher, and Geezers weren't the only resource. Some people invested in education, and we called them professionals. Others invested in an apprenticeship, and we called them tradesmen. Both the professionals and the tradesmen practiced, gained experience, and became masters of their craft.

This was probably the next phase in information storage and access. First was Geezers. Next, we had Gurus - doctors, plumbers, lawyers, carpenters, teachers, preachers - each making a living by trading on their niche expertise. These new Gurus knocked the Geezers down a notch, and delivered a higher level of expertise. If you couldn't find a Guru, you'd still rely on a Geezer.

Libraries became knowledge repositories, and at the time I'm sure the notion was considered as vague then as the current equivalent (cloud computing) is today. The Gurus were economically viable in cities and towns, places with enough population to justify their specialization. (This echoes Richard Florida's notion of spiky cities in the Information Age.)

There was once a radio comedy series that satirized Gurus called, "Ask Doctor Science". You'd write in your question, and Dr. Science would give you an answer. The show's tagline was:
       He knows more than you do!
       "I have a master's degree....in Science"
If a group of young artists was making that show today, people would be twitter-ing their questions in, and Dr. Science would be typing their questions into Google and IM'ing responses back, while Dr. Science's lab assistant would be snarkily blogging about the old fool.


Now we have the Web. When we go to the doctor's office, or when the furnace man comes to our house, we've already checked the web to see what we can learn. After the Specialist gives us their insight, which was at one time delivered with great haughtiness, now we wait a minute and say, "That's interesting, 'cause on Google I read ...." and the Specialist furrows their brow. I imagine that every Doctor and every technician must see it coming, the moment when the customer begins speaking conversationally and then awkwardly jumps to the Google reference. For some, Google is the first opinion and the Doctor is the second opinion with the prescription pad.



Recent newspapers bring the story of Marc Stephens, a 28-year-old Royal Navy aeronautical engineer, from Cornwall in the UK. Mrs. Stephens was about to give birth and no assistance was available. (We'll leave the National Health for another day.) He Googled his problem, watched a few YouTubes, and delivered the baby. Everybody's doing fine. Do we need midwives or OB/GYN's?

I've adopted Google as a tool. When I have a problem I type it into Google, and chances are somebody else has had that situation and has written about it online. My son was learning to drive and parallel parking loomed as a significant task that he needed to learn. I googled "teach teenager parallel park" and found more help than I needed. I didn't screw up the presentation, my son picked it up easily, and it was a non-event.

If you Google your problem and there's nothing in the way of results, I have two thoughts about your situation: first, you're in trouble, because you're in a rare and possibly unique situation and that's usually problematic; and second, if you figure it out you should blog it, because the noosphere needs the solution.

Google and the Web (Goo-Web ?) are a symbiotic pair. The Web holds the human-created content, which Google indexes and makes accessible. And that's just the current situation - Wolfram-Alpha is about to open up a new meta-level of web-based problem solving.

Between the Web, YouTube, and Google's indexing, there's all sorts of information, knowledge, and wisdom available that a person couldn't access twenty years ago. And remarkably, right now old people are marginalized and warehoused in a way that would have been unthinkable sixty years ago.

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