Mobile phones: Internet-connected smart phones are becoming the Mother of All Knowledge Replacement Devices. For general information, people head straight for Google or the Wikipedia and to more specialized sites, which are increasingly mobile-friendly, for detailed, often job-specific information. The availability of this information is making people more relaxed about knowledge in general.
So whether the idea of knowledge obsolescence strikes you as horrible or not, it's already happening, and tied directly to the quality and availability of gadgets.
Maybe this is an opportunity
The truth is that we forget just about everything we learn in the 12 years we go to school. Yes, much of that lost knowledge served as building blocks for subsequent knowledge and intellectual abilities that enabled us to develop into who we are now. But broadly speaking, the difference between an educated 40-year-old and a 40-year-old moron is not how much they learned in school but what those people have done since graduating. A curious, active reader who uses reference materials promiscuously is going to be far better educated than someone who doesn't read and doesn't care about knowing anything.
In other words, the current educational system is deeply flawed. How many new high school graduates come across as people who just devoted the last 12 years of their lives to learning? Would we all be better off if we had spent more of our pre-college education on skills, including how to find and process knowledge, than on memorizing facts that will soon be forgotten and can easily be retrieved later?
Maybe mobile devices will free us to transform our educational system into one that doesn't kill children's curiosity and sour them to the idea of reading a book. Maybe if kids don't have to spend so much time forcing themselves to memorize facts they've already got in their pockets, they can have less homework and regain their childhoods. Maybe we'll come to realize that knowledge -- the storing of data in our brains just in case we might need it someday -- isn't valuable to us. And if we can let the computers do that part for us, we can focus on what we do best, which is to recognize patterns, explore ideas and follow our curiosity.
Will knowledge become obsolete? I have no idea. But I do believe that carrying a hundred Libraries of Congress in our pockets changes our relationship with knowledge, and will force us to re-think how we acquire it.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog, The Raw Feed.