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Culture

How the Internet kills curiosity

NASA successfully landed its latest robotic vehicle on Mars 6 August, 2012, which is also the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I found that fact while browsing the Internet on the theme of curiosity. The coincidence works best if you go with Greenwich Mean Time rather than Pacific Daylight Time … another Internet-discovered factlet.

The new Mars rover is of course called Curiosity, a name that departs from the usual lexicon of pioneers, conquerors and the bold (Voyager, Discovery, Apollo, Viking). The bomb is of course associated with Pandora’s box (“We’ve opened Pandora’s box and the genie can’t be stuffed back in the bottle” according to a Los Alamos scientist). So it all kind of fits. Curiosity can be risky, if not lethal.

Panorama of rocky landscape, touched up to look red

The text of Hesiod: Works And Days (written around 700BC) tells the story of Pandora’s box, and is freely available on the web (the text that is). Pandora was a kind of female archetype. Hephaestus, Athene and Aphrodite gave her form, arts and graces, but the god Hermes put in her “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.” No wonder her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the tempting box (or jar) gifted to her, and unleashed all those plagues and evils (leaving hope behind).

As was the Devil to Eve, it’s actually Hermes the false guide and trickster god who was the culprit for purveying “lies and crafty words.” The closest NASA has come to naming one of its missions after Hermes is Mercury, the Roman copy — rehabilitated as the swift messenger.

Apart from discovering all these facts on the Internet here’s what else I’m curious about.

  1. You can look up facts on your smartphone from anywhere and at any time. We also know the information is there, even if we don’t look it up. Conversation thrives on speculation about facts, showing off knowledge, and sharing information: Olympic medal scores, the name of that actor in Total Recall, how long it takes to get to Mars, how to cook artichokes. There’s no need to speculate, and no need even to look it up. Will the Internet eventually dull our curiosity, a claim already made about the habits of generation Y?
  2. There is more than one Internet. Google Scholar is pretty good, but if you are lucky enough to be in a University with generous access to online journal subscriptions then you can search, browse and cite learned articles on just about anything. I was recently researching ageing and wellbeing, uncovering sources in sports medicine, linguistics, psychology, education, design and anthropology. Will this newly available intellectual promiscuity uncover hitherto unnoticed connections, clashes and syntheses, or engender a kind of superficiality, the spread of “lies and crafty words”?
  3. Does anyone list “smart search” under skill set in their CV? There’s no point in looking up “Pandora” on Google, as it’s a popular company name, and the name of the planet (moon) in a popular film. So there really is a skill in finding the right search terms, and linking them together. It also requires a fair degree of cultural knowledge. It seems to me that a couple of hours browsing on the Internet is now mandatory before writing or speaking on a topic, not least to find out what has not been said already. This tactic may also sow confusion, which needs to be managed.

Notes

  • Here’s a handy quote from a journal article on positive emotions: “This converging evidence suggests that resilient people have optimistic, zestful and energetic approaches to life, are curious and open to new experiences, and are characterized by high positive emotionality.” Fredrickson, Barbara L. 2004. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, (359) 1449, 1367-1377, page 1372.
  • On curiosity also see After affectsWhy ask?
  • On the trickster function see LOL Security reproduces the trickster function, and Unearthing the trickster function in Icelandic myth
  • See external post Has the Internet killed curiosity?
  • According to the NASA website, the US Army had a test rocket called Hermes in the 1950s.
  • See interesting article and images by Bob Stein working for Atari and predicting the use of mobile devices as knowledge sources in 1982, though missing the co-creative aspects of shared encyclopaedic knowledge.

Thumbnail of family with laptop looking into rockpool. Click to go to original page.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “How the Internet kills curiosity

  1. The facts of a myth are obviously malleable, below is Robert Grave’s version of The Myth of Pandora.

    I particularly like Prometheus’s involvement in the story and Pandora being created as a punishment for the transfer of fire to mortals.

    It is not clear how Prometheus put Delusive Hope into the box, but her presence is a delightful detail which I have long enjoyed.

    There are also interesting parallels between societies attitude to technology and the story of Epimetheus’s banishment from Olympia. He was the Olympian smith and responsible for Olympian technology such a Hermes’s winged helmet and scandals. However his mother Hera could not bear his deformed appearance and banished him from Olympia.

    On your substantive point about the knowledge or skill needed to construct intelligent searches I think this is where a liberal education is indicated. Perhaps reversely analogous to the skill required to estimate the result of a computation on a pocket calculator or spreadsheet.

    “One day, when a dispute took place at Sicyon, as to which portions of a sacrificial bull should be offered to the gods, and which should be reserved for men, Prometheus was invited to act as arbiter. He therefore flayed and jointed a bull, and sewed its hide to form two open-mouthed bags, filling these with what he had cut up. One bag contained all the flesh, but this he concealed beneath the stomach, which is the least tempting part of any animal; and the other contained the bones, hidden beneath a rich layer of fat. When he offered Zeus the choice of either, Zeus, easily deceived, chose the bag containing the bones . . . but punished Prometheus, who was laughing at him behind his back, by withholding fire from mankind. “Let them eat their flesh raw!” he cried.

    Prometheus at once went to Athene [from whom he had learned architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, metallurgy, and other arts, which he passed on to mortals], with a plea for a backstairs admittance to Olympus, and this she granted. On his arrival, he lighted a torch at the fiery chariot of the Sun and presently broke from it a fragment of glowing charcoal, which he thrust into the pithy hollow of a giant fennel-stalk. Then, extinguishing his torch, he stole away undiscovered, and gave fire to mankind.

    Zeus swore revenge. He ordered Hephaestus to make a clay woman, and the four Winds to breathe life into her, and all the goddesses of Olympus to adorn her. This woman, Pandora, the most beautiful ever created, Zeus sent as a gift to Epimetheus, under Hermes’s escort. But Epimetheus, having been warned by his brother to accept no gift from Zeus, respectfully excused himself. Now angrier even than before, Zeus had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar in the Caucasian mountains, where a greedy vulture tore at his liver all day, year in, year out; and there was no end to the pain, because every night (during which Prometheus was exposed to cruel frost and cold) his liver grew whole again.

    But Zeus, loth to confess that he had been vindictive, excused his savagery by circulating a falsehood: Athene, he said, had invited Prometheus to Olympus for a secret love affair.

    Epimetheus, alarmed by his brother’s fate, hastened to marry Pandora, whom Zeus had made as foolish, mischievous, and idle as she was beautiful. . . .

    Presently she opened a box, which Prometheus had warned Epimetheus to keep closed, and in which he had been at pains to imprison all the Spites that might plague mankind: such as Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion. Out these flew in a cloud, stung Epimetheus and Pandora in every part of their bodies, and then attacked the race of mortals. Delusive Hope, however, whom Prometheus had also shut in the box, discouraged them by her lies from a general suicide.”

    Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 144-145 (New York: Penguin Books, 1955)(vol.1):

    Posted by Graham Shawcross | August 13, 2012, 11:44 am
  2. Thanks for the elaboration Graham. Interesting how Graves doesn’t emphasise the role of Hermes in contributing to Pandora’s misplaced curiosity. On the theme of a liberal education … there was a time when scholars worth their salt would have had a “classical” education, meaning they were read in the classics, including the Greek myths … and they probably knew ancient Greek and Latin. This provided a common language as it were. Maybe the web substitutes for that common language. A writer can drop all sorts of references into an online text. If the reader doesn’t get the reference they can do a quick Google search. Of course, they may end up thinking Pandora is a radio station and get doubly confused.

    Posted by Richard Coyne | August 13, 2012, 4:51 pm
  3. I just noticed that I have made a naming, possibly a spellcheck, mistake, it was Hephaestus (Vulcan) who was banished by his mother Hera not Epimetheus.

    Posted by Graham Shawcross | August 13, 2012, 5:26 pm
  4. Curiosity is not only about a questioning mind, but also concerned with the depth your speculation goes to.Strong
    curiosity will become one’s motivation of seeking the nature, the essence of a fact. The seeking process need to be continuous and progressive. Yet, since the emergence of SEO, for example, Wiki, Google Scholar, loads of answers with abundant information are out there and at our hands. We might not be that curious any more, at the meantime, our attention will be easily abstracted onto other things. Each issue will not cost us more than a hour’s thinking time(even fewer), then we would be captured by other newly articles or terms and gradually forget what we initially meant to look for. The curiosity may not be killed, but distracted and distributed. Meanwhile, our train of thought get interrupted now and then. Like having a buffet,our stomatch will soon be filled up with simply having
    a toothful taste of each of the dishes. We are becoming a generation of pancake people whose knowlege is broad but shallow, like the proverbial “jacks of all trades, but masters of none”.

    Posted by Lian Tang | December 5, 2012, 4:01 pm
    • That’s a good warning Lian Tang. Is curiosity about snooping around and being easily bored before moving on to the next sensation, or about going deeper? Perhaps both. The following article is interesting: Silvia, Paul J. 2012. Interest: The curious emotion. Current Directions in Psychlogical Science, (17) 1, 57-60.

      Posted by Richard Coyne | January 6, 2013, 3:07 pm

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