I have a fairly good head for trivia. Not a spectacular one. I won’t be replacing Mark Labbett on The Chase or even be facing him as a contestant. On most trips aired on Cash Cab, however, I’d have made it to the destination – with a strike or two and with a shout-out to be sure, but I’d have made it. The ubiquity of smart-phones, however, has altered the way a grab-bag of facts and factoids held by one’s personal memory plays in casual conversation. Anything one purports as true is open to immediate fact-checking and contention. Far more than in the past, not being a computer, I’m likely to be corrected on things I haven’t recalled perfectly – perhaps you are, too.
As an example, something about Alaska came up in conversation not long ago, and I made the throw-away remark that the place was a pretty good deal for $7 million. Tick-tick-tack went fingers on a phone. “That’s $7 million two hundred thousand, Richard,” I was told in a self-satisfied tone. So it was. (In fact, I knew the purchase price of Alaska in 1867 was $7,200,000, but to protest that I was rounding the number would have sounded unconvincing and pettily defensive, so I let it go – until now. I settled for, “Ah.”) In the same conversation roller derby (a sport which readers of this blog know I enjoy as a spectator) arose as a topic, and then movies about derby. I commented on the flawed flick Kansas City Bomber, which I identified as having been “made back around ‘71 sometime.” Tick-tick-tack. “1972,” I was corrected. My interlocutor then read off an IMDB list of derby films, none of which he himself actually had seen. “Ah.”
All of this continuous access to information is a good thing. I like being able to learn more about some random subject at a moment’s notice. Who has time to dig out an encyclopedia or to visit the library over every minor question? True, partners in conversation sometimes are inordinately proud of their ability to use Google in order to catch spoken errors, but sometimes their research is socially rewarding, too. If no correction follows the sound of tick-tick-tack, I know I got the datum or quote or whatever right. That’s (perhaps also inordinately) enjoyable.
But is our new-found reliance on virtual memory making us weak-minded? It seems that it is, at least to some degree. Nicolas Carr (author of The Shallows) addressed this question a few years ago. Referencing several psychological studies, he reported that the internet has diminished the time we spend deep reading. We skim. We follow link to link, flitting around the net like butterflies, often losing track of our initial query. The more hyperlinks an online text contains, the lower our comprehension of it when tested afterwards. Carr quotes T.S. Eliot when describing online multitaskers, saying they are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” which is precisely the kind of quote unlikely to be employed by someone who hasn’t done any deep reading in his past. Creativity and insight largely involve connecting one piece of knowledge with another in a new way, something much more difficult when the pieces of knowledge aren’t in our own heads. He concludes, “What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection.” We become shallower.
None of this is inevitable for any particular individual. Nothing prevents us from reading Nietzsche or Camus cover-to-cover. But we may need to push ourselves to do it, much as we need to push ourselves to do physical exercise as vigorous as ordinary people once got in their everyday activities. If we do, the internet becomes the great bonus it should be. As for those of our fellows with no patience for books (or exercise), I want them to Google as much as possible. Virtual knowledge is vastly better than none at all. They and we are better off for their access to it, and it’s easy enough to respond to their corrections with a polite, “Ah.”
Students Sans Google