Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

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I threw away my dictionary. Tossed it. Considered my cluttered desk and decided it was time to take a critical look at what was crowding this valuable real estate. I gathered a stack of books I’ve always kept near at hand and, as I wiped the dust off of them, came to the realization that, while I look up the occasional tricky bit of grammar in my tiny, trusty Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, I literally haven’t used my dictionary or thesaurus in years.

Wherever I may be—at my home or office desk or using my laptop in other climes—if I need to be sure I know what a word means, I Google, Wikipedia, or Dictionary.com it. I used to happily lose myself in a Roget’s, flipping around to various facets to hone in on what I really wanted to say. Now I know that the contents of Roget’s can be found in an interactive edition on the thesaurus tab of Reference.com along with a multitude of dictionaries, an encyclopedia, grammar guides, guidelines on how to use these resources, and word-centric fun and games including crosswords and word searches.

To be honest, nowadays I even get to use a ton of resources that I would never have been able to justify buying for my office (a small satellite in our company), much less home office, like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which I can now access at www.bartleby.com. I don’t often need to look up a quote, but sometimes I do … and sometimes I just want to. Yet not only would it be hard to justify buying current versions every year, given the relative infrequency with which I’d use them, I wouldn’t even consider carrying essential reference books around when I’m already carrying a laptop. That bag is quite heavy enough, thanks.

Ah, but give me a wireless connection and the most essential or inconsequential fact is at my fingertips. But then again, a connection is not necessarily a given.

I had to blog a tradeshow about a year ago, and I focused on breaking news from the show floor. Unfortunately, that floor was about a quarter mile from the nearest wireless hotspot. I do wish I were exaggerating. My feet were raw by the end of the first day. To minimize sprints to the hotspot, I wrote my posts in the exhibits area between meetings and saved them as drafts with a bunch of “TK’s” (really old-fashioned journalism slang for an item that needs to be fact checked or filled in). All right, I just checked on About.com and TK is short for “to come,” which is what I’d thought, but since I still wonder why it isn’t TC rather than TK, let me check The Free Dictionary (http://acronyms.the freedictionary.com). Oh, okay, it is phonetic. Sure, you didn’t need to know that, nor did I, having made it 20 years in the business without being quite sure. However, let’s consider the process at work here:

My thoughts can skitter around the web like a stone over the surface of a pond, but instead of sinking to some set point at the end, they often emerge infused with a new idea or two, and I can put a few better-informed words on the page.

While getting those words down on paper (or screen, as it were) is my job, being better informed is part of almost everyone’s job. I, for one, do not boil that down to staying abreast of the trades and essential work-related reading, either. It behooves everyone to have a broader context in which to perform thought processes. Thinking in a vacuum sucks.

So while reference books, along with the rest of the required reading list, are important tools for my job, all sorts of other media inform what I do. Because my work involves the most current technologies along with a bit of prognosticating about what is around the digital corner, I can’t afford to have this information sitting around collecting dust before it gets to me. Then again, who can? But for all the talk of our always on, connected, converged world, there are dead zones in the infrastructure—be it in flight or in town.

Yet, as ever, solutions are emerging to fill these digital info gaps: from Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader, which you can stuff with hundreds of books, stash in a jacket pocket, and take just about anywhere, to the news about JetBlue Airways partnership with Yahoo!, Inc. and RIM to offer free, in-flight Wi-Fi for laptops and smart phones. Oh, the places my mind will go.