Databases Give Us Quick Answers But Don’t Teach Us to Ask Good Questions

I haven’t much time for this tonight… but the subject of technological sabotage eating away at my daily contentment has preoccupied me lately with maybe a dozen pretty powerful examples.  I’ll save the list for a better moment.

Just a footnote, then, about a conversation I had today with a librarian–and it was more of a guilt trip that I was being led along for not linking up my students to an online tutorial about the library’s databases.  Great stuff, those databases… kind of.  Sometimes.  If you have just the right keyword phrase, they save days and even weeks of time.  Take you right to the doorstep.

But what if you have no such handy little golden key?  When I was a very young man, I recall running across a reference in the Gaelic poetry of the sixteenth-century Scottish bard Rory Morrison to a peculiar legend–almost a unique one.  A king was about to execute three men when a young woman approached him and implored mercy for her brother.  Ther king was puzzled by her request, since the other two men were her husband and her son.  Why so much concern for the brother, he asked.  “Because I can get another husband,” answered the woman, “and I can bear another son, but I’ll never have another brother.”  The dazzled monarch released all three men.

This tale is rather precisely analogous to one that Herodotus told of the Persian king Cyrus about two millennia earlier.  Otherwise, it makes no appearance anywhere in the lore of Greece and Rome–or of Germany.  (Of course, Herodotus himself was a Greek… but he heard the story from a Persian.)  It’s one bit of evidence in a long and complicated–but convincing–brief that the Celts were once cultural nextdoor neighbors to Easterners who would become Persians and Indians.

Or I might mention a tale I ran across just last week in the medieval Silva Gadelica.  It has Caoilte relating to Saint Patrick an account about the Fianna’s favorite hunting hill, where the two of them are standing at that moment.  Just to prove his point, Caolite gives a wild yell that summons every game animal from the surrounding forests.  It occurred to me that the short tale would make a very nice footnote to my translation of the medieval Welsh romance Owein, at the point where a one-eyed, one-legged giant bangs a stag over the head until the beast’s bellows bring every animal in the woods.  Both figures are shamanic “masters of the hunt”, fulfilling the same role in a mythic paradigm.

Here’s my point.  How would I ever have happened upon either one of these parallels using keyword searches?  What database could yield the results that wide, serendipitous reading once did for great scholars of myth like Alfred Nutt and Stith Thompson?  Or how many scientists will be struck by the possibility of a new cure or a new cosmic force if they give up messing in the garden or didn’t ride in something like Einstein’s trolley?

Electronic databases can take researches instantly down paths that have already been traveled, and then the travelers can perhaps venture a bit farther.  What they can and will never do is teach minds how to think through sketchy, highly speculative associations rather than through shared words.  And in foreclosing a certain kind of scholarship, they will also suffocate a certain kind of human being.  Our machines will make us think more and more like a machine as their designers are claiming to make them more and more like us.  I’m sure the two will meet somewhere soon–but not on a turf that would have been considered fully human a few years ago.