Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Digitisation, wikipedia, and the ease of erudition

Being an utter geek I've been watching Michael Wood's Story of India on the ABC. This week's episode covered the development of the silk road and the rise of the Kushan Empire, and in it he discusses the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea - essentially a Greaco Roman Lonely Planet to the ports accessible via the sea crossing to India from Egypt.

It's a short book, and has only really been translated once, in 1912. I, being a Roman history geek, at once thought it would be worth a read. Before widespread digitsation this would have meant either trying to track down a copy in a second hand shop or in a library, itself no mean feat in the days before google. Phone calls, telnet sessions to catalogue machines with radically different interfaces, and fruitless journeys to wet and windy university campuses on the edge of nowhere.

Today it's simple. Google it, find two online versions - one at Fordham - one in South Africa - decide which one to download and print and you're done. yes, you still need the background, the knowledge, the interest, but given those access is easy - well for some sources as my essay on Adam of Usk testifies, but it's getting easier.

The other thing is wikipedia as on online resource. Whatever the accuracy of wikipedia it is probably no less accurate than other sources due to its crowd sourced nature. People who write about the Kushan empire probably know something about it and are interested in knowing more. So towards the end of the show, Michael Wood is in Mathura and is asking directions from a stall holder to a hill where archaeologists uncovered a set of statues of the Kushan kings early in 20th century. There's scene where Wood asks directions in broken Urdu and the stall holder replies clearly saying "ah tokar...", and Wood then makes a comment to camera about how the name carries a memory of the language.

Being a geek, I immediately think of Tokharian, the supposed language spoken by the people famous for the Urumchi mummies , and yes, quick wikipedia search, and yes, there is a presumed link.

Now it could be argued that all I'm doing is showing myself to be a pretentious geek. I'm not. I'm showing how easy it is to become an erudite and pretentious geek. The ease of availability of information makes it easy to track down facts. Yes one needs the background, the inclination, and the rest of it, but provided one is interested in acquiring knowledge it's easy. Real understanding though is something different ...

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