A Web Surfer's Unthinkable Act: Using the Library

It's amazing how much college students use the Internet these days. My friends and I check our e-mail almost constantly. To get the latest news, I visit a Web site. Even in the classroom, the Web has become king: Professors around the country complain that their students hardly open a book when doing research - they simply check out the Net.

I've always been wary of this obsession with the Web. But a few weeks ago, with only a few hours left in which to write an essay about Confucius' "The Analects" - a work of ancient thought that has been studied, analyzed, and over which more scholars have fretted than perhaps any other - I turned to the information superhighway for help.

The Internet means you don't have to step outside to get the information you need - it's right there in your room. You don't even have to talk to anyone! Just a point and a click, and it's all there at your fingertips. Right?

So I entered the key word "Confucius" into Yahoo, the search engine of choice for most students around here. And, boy, did it deliver. On the screen before me appeared the addresses of no fewer than 99,400 sites that included the philosopher's name. Sure, the guy is the most important figure in East Asia's cultural, political, and intellectual traditions. But I mean, really - what do I need with 100,000 sites?

I clicked on the first entry, which seemed promising. "Confucius said, 'The superior man makes the difficulty to be overcome his first interest; success comes only later,' " it began. Heeding this sage advice, I read on.

Here's what I found: "After you've attained your weight goal, it's only natural to worry about whether you'll be able to stay thin, especially if you've dieted before and later regained all the weight you lost."

While the implications of Confucian thought for America's commercial weight-loss programs might have made for a stimulating essay topic, I figured it wasn't quite what my professor was looking for.

So, on to the next hit.

Which turned out to be one of the ever-popular "Confucius Say" pages, as in: "Confucius say: Chemist who fall in acid, absorbed in work." Or, even better, "He who eat cookie in bed, will wake up feeling crumby." Or, one that by this point rang true: "Confucius say much too much!"

After I'd had my fill of stupid Confucius jokes, I threw up my hands in frustration and did the unthinkable: I walked over to the library, asked the librarian for help, searched the card catalog, found the information I needed - and wrote my paper.

The point of all this is neither new nor particularly profound: The Internet, like other recent advances in information technology, is no panacea for our insatiable desire for quick, accurate information. Often, it's rather a waste of time.

But we overlook this point in our rush to make things faster, more accessible. Connect all schools to the information superhighway! Buy everything on the Web! Get rid of libraries altogether!

The argument that technology does more harm than good, of course, is tiresome. The fact that I can sit in my room in Princeton and access the world - and that a child in rural Mississippi can do the same - is proof enough that these innovations provide benefits that were, until recently, unimaginable.

But before we start replacing America's teachers with computer screens and our community stores with online catalogs, we might pause to consider: Is all this actually bringing us nearer to our goal of expanded opportunities for all - or simply distracting us from them?

For, as Confucius really did say, "Do not be impatient. Do not see only petty gains. If you are impatient, you will not reach your goal. If you see only petty gains, the great tasks will not be accomplished."

* Brett Dakin, a senior at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., is writing his senior thesis.

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