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Knowing things

June 5, 2015

I’m stunned again by the wealth of information at hand today.

When I was my son’s age, if I wanted to learn about (say) the Tiananmen Square massacre, I could look in an encyclopedia, if we had one. I could go to the library and riffle through card catalogs to see if there are any books about Tiananmen Square, or if there are any books that made mention of it. If I was particularly resourceful, I could find old newspaper articles about it on microfiche.

Today is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – specifically, of the day it got really bloody – and I realized how very little I knew about it. (A Reddit user posted several very gory pictures of the incident, and it got me curious.) What can I do today? I can read about it on Wikipedia. I can search for pictures and videos, rare though they are. I can look for first hand accounts of the incident. I can see an entire documentary on YouTube. I can buy ebooks about it and start reading right away. I can look at satellite photos and tourist photos and official photos and guidebook photos of the square itself. My god, I can instantly search for the biographies of everyone that was in charge of the Chinese government at the time (and those who lost their jobs soon after the event for being too sympathetic to the protesters).

It’s a sad way to get at this realization. But in truth, what greater power is there, than to gather up a million words and images about a piece of history….and make it real to me, today?

What power is there to learn from the past? What intelligence could we build up from looking at what happened then and there and another time? I don’t have the optimism I once had, but it’s a glorious thought: the sharing, and knowing, and connecting that we have created.

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