Thursday, October 23, 2008

It’s been said many times, by people much more intelligent and articulate than myself, but the internet has really changed the way that people access and interact with information. My job requires me to do a fair amount of research and calls on me to have at least a passing knowledge of pretty much everything, ever.

Now, if you want a fairly shallow understanding of pretty much everything, ever, then the internet is your man – or, more specifically, Wikipedia. When I need to know something for a specific reason then I get my information from somewhere authoritative, but for just a quick orientation on a subject wiki is king.

The problem with it, and its great strength, is the amazing way that information is endlessly interlinked and cross-referenced. It brings out a little known principle of information gathering, sort of like thermodynamics of thought – when reading about something important, your mind will always tend to drift towards information that is less important, but more interesting. This is best demonstrated by this XKCD comic:

Today, for example, I started by reading about a John Wayne film called ‘The Cowboys’ – this was for work, I needed to get a vague idea of the story before I wrote something. Through various strange diversions -- which included articles on Bruce Dern, Yakima Canutt, and Non-Fiction Novels -- I ended up on a website devoted to a little known sideshow freak/magician called Johnny Eck.

All you can see in that picture is all there was to him – he was developmentally normal, except for the fact that his body stopped just below his ribcage, giving him the appearance of a half person. He nonetheless lived a long and varied life, managing to use his bizarre deformity to his advantage. I especially like the anecdote I read about the time when he performed in a travelling magic show with a magician and a dwarf: The dwarf would wear a specially designed pair of giant trousers that came up over his head, and would hold Johnny Eck over the waist so that – in a dark theatre at least – they looked like one person. The magician would pick them out of the audience for the obligatory sawing-in-half trick, and when the boxes were separated the ‘legs’ would get up and run around the stage, with Johnny Eck chasing them around on his hands, angrily demanding that they come back. The cast and crew always found the show hilarious, and once the people who had fainted, or thrown up, had recovered they were pretty impressed too.