Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weird Questions

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Instead of going to Starbucks every time, I recently asked my roommate to give me some suggestions on what kind of coffee beans I should buy so that I could make my own coffee here in New York City. Even though he is a constant coffee drinker, he gave no suggestions except to “Google it.”

While I had received this answer previously to some other questions, which are not expected to be asked in Internet-savvy New York, I found my friend’s answer weird.

“In the era and city of advertisements, how could I possibly find on the Internet reliable information judging which coffee is good and which one is bad?” I said.

But the friend introduced me to something called “reviews,” which are qualitative evaluations provided by voluntary customers about products they have tried. The reviews gave me satisfactory answers, perhaps much better than any friend could do, allowing me to buy great coffee of my own choice.

I had to admit that my question was weird and not my friend’s answer.

In a city like New York, where Internet penetration is as deep as it is wide, weird questions are no longer solely about men’s salaries and women’s ages. They include any question whose answer is conclusively available on the web.

In a country like Iraq, where I am from, many of New York’s weird questions are still normal.

The reason is simple: In the English-speaking world, the Internet supported by countless resources can provide a much easier and more convincing answer than a friend. A postmodern and free community such as Facebook, which currently has some 750 million netizens, is more responsive to someone who knows English.

The first weird question I asked was on my second day in America. In a similar Iraqi behavior, I met a prospective classmate and asked him if he could accompany me to find the nearest branch of Bank of America. Like a good guy, he joined me, strolling down Broadway.

Though he was from California and new to New York, he took out the latest version of the iPhone, which, just like Moses’ Staff, found the exact location of and directions to the destination I needed.

To avoid repeating such embarrassing location-related questions, I realized that having a smart phone was a necessary part of New York life.

But in Iraqi Kurdistan, where most houses don’t even have addresses, in order to reach a destination, I needed to memorize and apply a passage as easy as this one: Take the main road until you reach a mosque, then make a left and go all the way down. Stop in the fifth street, our house has a red door facing a dusty children soccer field.

Each time, for instance, I visited a friend of mine in one of Kurdistan’s most affluent neighborhoods, Ainkawa, I had to call him to come and pick me up near a petrol station.

Even before coming to the US, however, I knew that numeric and statistical questions might be weird to ask. I would, for instance, have searched the Internet to find the unemployment rate in 1982 America.

With the recent transformation of the Internet from a “read-only” to a “read-and-write” tool in which users are active participants rather than passive recipients, there are an unbelievable number of weird questions to which people seek answers online rather than in real life. It did not use to be like this a couple decades ago.

People increasingly don’t even need to be physically taught by a teacher or present at a school to learn or even earn a degree. As the number of online schools is increasing, a recent survey shows that the number of American students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6 million, including one-third of all students in higher education.

In order not be replied with “Google it,” I might have to check to see if the question is answerable on the Internet, or to ask after saying a phrase akin to, “What’s your personal OPINION on…?”

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