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Information Not Found

Certainly, one can think of the nature of human existence to be a quest for knowledge. Not necessarily a purposeful quest, but one nonetheless. Indeed, the desire to understand the world around us has driven people to many scientific disciplines, with countless discoveries that have deepened our understand of how the universe, and our own bodies, work. These discoveries are fascinating, and yet we don't fully appreciate just how difficult it was to make them in the first place. Indeed, we as a species have generally become underwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to us, despite its enormity. It is only when we run into information that is not available that we truly realize just how we tend to take the uniform availability of information for granted. So how do we generate new information, and to what extent is it really important that we continue to do so?

A Hole in Knowledge

A few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents at my childhood home, and my mother was retelling stories of her own childhood, and of her visits to a particular zoo that was located near her home in Upstate New York, known as Fox's zoo. It clearly occupied a central place in her childhood memory, and when I returned home I was curious and I wanted to learn more about it. Naturally, I turned to the internet for more information, and was sorely disappointed. Through Google searches, I was able to turn up little more than a few old advertisements in archived newspapers, the knowledge that the zoo closed in the 70's, and the fact that the anteater from the zoo had been taxidermied and was now on display in a local community college. Beyond that, the Internet was silent on this former makeshift zoo, despite the fact that it existed just a handful of decades ago. A few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents at my childhood home, and my mother was retelling stories of her own childhood, and of her visits to a particular zoo that was located near her home in Upstate New York, known as Fox's zoo. It clearly occupied a central place in her childhood memory, and when I returned home I was curious and I wanted to learn more about it. Naturally, I turned to the internet for more information, and was sorely disappointed. Through Google searches, I was able to turn up little more than a few old advertisements in archived newspapers, the knowledge that the zoo closed in the 70's, and the fact that the anteater from the zoo had been taxidermied and was now on display in a local community college. The zoo had been located on route 152, and one user had recently sold a penant for the zoo on ebay, although no one had actually stepped in to buy it likely due to the sheer obscurity of the item and of the Zoo itself. Beyond that, the Internet was silent on this former makeshift zoo, despite the fact that it existed just a handful of decades ago.

This failure to turn up more information than that bothered me, as I have grown quite accustomed to the ability of the internet to answer almost any question I might have, particular about recent things such as this zoo. If I want to know the comprehensive history of the Roman empire then there are thousands of options available to me, and yet we know little of such a recent institution. Obviously, a roadside attraction lacks in much historical significance, but as it no doubt occupied a central role in many childhood's for local children, it was nonetheless surprising that more of them had not posted about it on the internet since its inception. Certainly in today's world of widespread smart phone use and Yelp reviews, even the smallest zoo would maintain a robust online presence.

If I wanted to find out more about the zoo, I do believe that it would be possible to do so, but it would not be trivial to do so. I would need to make journalistic efforts into the owners of the zoo and what became of them, and I may need to interview locals about what they remember about the days of the zoo. Perhaps a local library might be able to turn out some old papers containing articles mentioning or reviewing the zoo in depth. By pulling all of these sources and reading or reviewing them thoroughly, I might be able to get a better sense for what this zoo was like, how it got where it was, and why it disappeared when it did. Indeed, I could likely fill in this hole in knowledge that the internet currently contains. But why would I want to do so, and what would be gained from it?

For my mother, the zoo is a happy memory - the history of the zoo is not important. She cares little for what became of the anteater or the elk that might have lived therein, instead she is interested in the happy thoughts of her and her father taking a day trip away from their daily mundane lives to visit the exciting and exotic species that they could not afford to visit at a larger zoo that time would not forget. In reality, the zoo would hardly be a zoo by today's standards and would no doubt many animal treatment laws, but it provided people with a glimpse into another part of the world that they lacked in their daily lives, and as such it created powerful and lasting memories for the visitors of the day.

Conclusions

The zoo was evanescent in its nature, an unsustainable roadside attraction that poor attendance and increasing animal rights regulations no doubt forced into closure. But it was able to create memories that lasted a lifetime. When I heard about those memories, my first reaction was to recreate the history of the location, but the history would be no doubt underwhelming and unnecessary. It is the power of the past to create lasting positive impressions that is most critical in this regard. We have become to focused on the details of who, what, and where in our modern society where we feel the need to document every second of our lives on Facebook, on a blog, or simply with photos on Instagram. While these documents will ensure that others in the future can understand what we did and who we were, they will never really allow people to appreciate how those things made us feel, and so for others they are quite meaningless.

The past is in many ways a mystery, even when it is not ancient. Unlocking the facts of something that was not recorded can be a daunting task, and even if it is done sucessfully it may prove to be underwhelming. Instead, it is more important to understand the motivations of the people that partook of the activity being studied. It is not as important to understand how certain things are done, so much as to appreciate the way that these things shaped the lives of those affected by them. Indeed, the power to fill in many holes in modern knowledge exists, but for some of these historical areas doing so may simply not be worth it. Certainly, discovering holes in scientific knowledge may be essential for helping save lives in the future, but historical knowledge can maintain holes. And just maybe, it should.

Society


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