american society, personal, ruminations

Bandwidth and Information

While visiting grandparents, I couldn’t avoid notice of the difference in the information systems they had. That is, the bandwidth that they had flowing into their houses.

My mother’s parents are frugal to the point of being mildly absurd. That is, they still (well, last time I checked) have pulse dialing on their home phone at a time when most people don’t recognize that there was ever anything before dial tones. It is, of course, two dollars cheaper per months, and prevents them from have to navigate though the menus that tell you to press “1” for English (they don’t work with pulses, and you’re passed directly to a human).

They also, as you could have extrapolated, do not pay for cable television. At a time when analog antenna’s are about to die (I think they’re currently scheduled for termination in 2009, though that may have been extended), they are happy to watch the four fuzzy channels that actually come into their house. And the internet? Dial-up sustains them well enough.

Clearly, that is low-bandwidth living. But considering that they grew up in a time when a party line was considered high technology, it’s not so bad. To a dumb kid like me, it’s abysmal.

My father’s parents have a higher level of technology than I have: tone-based phone service (provided by the cable company), cable internet, and digital cable. Clearly this is high bandwidth, higher than they’ve ever had before.

What I found so startling wasn’t the difference, but how comparatively little impact it had on their lives and their knowledge of what was happening in the world around them. In an age that considers internet speed the measure of advancement, the flagging performance of the United States in this area a condemnation of our infrastructure, its fascinating to see how little it really matters.

If anyone of those four people is most knowledgeable about the world, most aware of what’s happening, it’s probably my mother’s father. Not because of the internet, but because he has a portion of a dead tree dropped on his porch everyday around 5PM, takes it inside and reads it. Actually reads the newspaper on newsprint.

Certainly, in an age of streaming video and massive software updates, it’s a certifiable convenience to have “high-speed” internet service. But it doesn’t make you smarter if you don’t utilize it; and even if you do, there’s a good chance it will not.

What’s really important is that you take the time to gain knowledge, not that you have unlimited means to procure it. I often forget that. And though I recognize that one needs at least modest means to procure knowledge, having those means doesn’t inherently make you any more intelligent.

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