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Offline: Ignorance

Offline: Ignorance


Paul Miller considers information, knowledge, and the trouble of trivia in his travels in a world away from the internet.

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In the classic animated series Arthur there are many references to reading. For instance, Arthur's full name is "Arthur Read," which is a little obvious. There is also the dynamic, show-stopping number: "Having Fun Isn't Hard When You've Got A Library Card." Many pivotal moments and celebrity cameos take place in the library as well, as if to remind us that it's not only vital that you attend your local library often, but also potentially cool. You can almost walk away with the vibe that the show's creators feel a little guilty for making a TV show at all, especially a TV show based on a popular series of books about Arthur the (vaguely socially awkward) aardvark, and therefore felt the need to be heavy handed with reading propaganda.

But there was one unsettling aspect of the series: the Senegalese bear character known as "Brain." See, while Arthur was happy to sing the praises of reading, he wasn't the show's most voracious reader. Instead, Brain was the "bookworm" of the bunch, always anthropomorphic nose-down in a weighty volume, and often unaware of the world around him. Brain could come across as aloof, and out of touch with the everyman — the everyman being, of course, Arthur's role in the series. Brain was rarely to blame for something going wrong in the town of Elwood City, and often provided ingenious solutions, but he seemed to miss out on the deeper, emotional lessons of his 5th grade peers.

I find it interesting that a show so set on promoting book-learning makes something of a caricature of its primary reader. And doesn't this negative stereotype hide a slice of jealousy, akin to blaming a "show off" for showing you up, "or little miss perfect" for upholding the moral code? When your facts are found in a library, being a "know-it-all" is a real achievement, and when your reading selection advances beyond young adult fantasy novels, being a "bookworm" is a real test of your cognitive abilities, perseverance, and priorities.

the image of a "nerd" has much more to do with science-fiction than the science or fiction sections of the local library

Nowadays, the image of a "nerd" has much more to do with science-fiction than the science or fiction sections of the local library. Everybody is a know-it-all, thanks to Wikipedia, and a precious college education can be downloaded on iTunes — no great feat. Even a show like Big Bang Theory, which frequently treats the intelligence of its characters as a roadblock instead of an asset, seems to think of knowledge as innate and immutable, and something more likely to result in a trip to Comic-Con than to a Kindle session under your favorite tree.

In Amusing Ourselves To Death, media critic Neil Postman writes that "What a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its most important forms of communication." This means that for an oral culture, memorized proverbs mattered; for a written culture, you need a deep, sequential reasoning on the part of the writer and reader; in a television culture, the ability to appear "credible" on camera (much to do with your hair, according to Postman); and in an internet culture...? The book came out in 1985, and doesn't have an answer for "generation Twitter."

What I do know is that I'm a lot more "smart" in an internet culture than in this written culture I've exiled myself to. In an internet culture, it matters more that I know where the facts can be found, and how to piece them together, curate, and redistribute, than how long I can keep my head submerged in 300 pages of non-fiction. When reading news on the internet, I'm defined by my filters, but when reading a newspaper, I'm defined by my patience for skimming through stories about crises in the Middle East.

I've found myself buying books on sprees that have more similarity to opening multiple tabs in a browser than the actions of a rational shopper. I page through my magazines like an RSS reader, where "marking read" means reading the headline, not necessarily reading the article. I've long since run out of shelf space for new titles, I'm a few pages into a few dozen books, ranging from Plato's Meno to John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, and I've thrown away numerous issues of The New Yorker that I've never even observed the table of contents of. I seem to be collecting more rubber bands than facts from my New York Times subscription. I'm drowning.

Without the internet, the price of knowing is steep, and the price of trivia is steeper

Because here's the problem: I can't be a know-it-all anymore. I have to be something else. Without the internet, the price of knowing is steep, and the price of trivia is steeper. Who has the time? Who has the patience? Who has the proper glasses prescription? I can't read all this shit, and now nobody else can read it for me and tell me what it says, 140 characters at a time. I feel like Arthur in a world of Brains. Sure, I'm learning life lessons in each and every half hour episode, and you look a little dumpy in your patched-elbow sweaters and corduroy pants, but you're going to Harvard when this series is over, and I'll be lucky to get into Podunk State.

The other day, two friends of mine got into a debate over whether Hendrix had done a version of "Cocaine," while Clapton's rendition spun on the record player. Friend 1 argued that Hendrix died before the song was written in 1975, while Friend 2 could practically hear the Hendrix version ringing in his head.

Due to my neglect, the Wi-Fi has stopped working in my apartment in the past couple of weeks, so Friend 2's process of iPhone knowledge-verification had to trickle through AT&T's "4G" network, which gave me a chance to escape the scene. I can't always help what people look up on the internet in my presence, but this felt like a archetypal moment to me, and I wanted to treat it right.

The whole episode reminded me of the debate by Ryan Adams and one of his session players, which precedes the first song of his solo debut (go ahead, Google it, I'll wait). I believe they're talking about Morrissey, but it doesn't matter. The argument, and its inclusion on the album, is one huge brag. Not only are these two men so deep in their knowledge of Morrissey that they're able to debate the specific song listings of his albums, but they're so passionate about this topic that they're arguing about these trivialities in the middle of a recording session, preceding the final take of the album's hot lead-off single. The fact that Ryan Adams wins the argument seems in retrospect the sole reason his name got to be on the cover.

While I love the rest of the album, the dialogue is (intentionally) grating, and certainly from another time. It's as quaint as Bob Dylan complaining about discovering his guitar was out of tune after a 12 minute take, or Neil Postman writing a detailed indictment of the dangers of television, or Arthur needing a library card to have fun. The internet age has solved all that.

I was exiting my apartment as Friend 2, handicapped as he was, pronounced the discovery that Google results for "Hendrix Cocaine" included YouTube performances and lyric transcriptions. I stepped out before Friend 1 could begin his cross examination.

In an ice cream shop across the street, while purchasing a milkshake, I ran across a drunk man about my age, wearing an Eric Clapton t-shirt under his windbreaker. This struck me as an odd coincidence, until I noticed during one of his forward sways that it was more specifically an Eric Clapton Slowhand t-shirt, meaning this was actually more like a sign from God. (As you've no doubt learned by now on Wikipedia, Slowhand was the Eric Clapton album on which the song "Cocaine" appeared).

I tentatively approached this soaked stranger, pointed out his shirt, and asked if I could ask him a factual question. He squinted at me, as if he was having a little trouble focusing.

"Did Hendrix ever do a version of Cocaine?" I asked. I think I might've additionally made a joke about Hendrix doing cocaine, but if I did it was in poor taste and I apologize.

He thought for a moment, but then spoke very clearly: "Not that I know of."

"Some friends and I were trying to remember," I said. "I know Clapton did it on Slowhand—"

"No, I mean, I don't know a lot about Hendrix... maybe? But I'm a huge Clapton fan." As if I'd implied that he wasn't. He gave me a hurt look and started to drift away. "I'm pretty sure he didn't."

"Okay, thanks, I thought I heard—"

"Just Google it, man!"

"Just Google it, man!" And he was out the door.

When I returned to my apartment, I discovered I didn't really care about the answer any more. I didn't even care much that Friend 2's Google search had been spoiled by false positives created by others with the same misconception as him. What mattered was that the answer I hand-extracted from someone wearing an Eric Clapton t-shirt was less definitive than the answer I could get from anyone on earth who has present Internet access.

It's not enough that I can't keep up with the news of the day, or the progress of culture, or a backlog of great works, but I can't even track down a solitary, trivial fact. What would require for me a trip to a bookstore, and a painstaking search for songwriting chronologies referenced against a biography of Jimi Hendrix (at least, I think that's how I would do it), could be performed by my friend with a few thumb taps.

Luckily, I'm not really a big fan of the song anyway.

Which brings us back to me, and my analogy of drowning in voluntarily-acquired reading material. Bereft of my comfortable middle ground, the internet IQ I've cultivated for so long, I fear I'm learning to prefer ignorance. Instead of paddling toward the shore of Deep-Understanding, I might be swimming for the capsized boat of I-Don't-Care-Anyway.

I might be swimming for the capsized boat of I-Don't-Care-Anyway

"If I can't know it easily, is it worth knowing?" I ask myself. "Don't tell me" is my mantra. I find myself extrapolating the likely theses of books I own but haven't started, just to have something to talk about. Instead of finally knowing the deep intricacies of the news of the day, I just pay more attention to my coffee shop's CNN feed. I'm writing this self-indulgent diary entry instead of doing my self-assigned homework for another more difficult project. Plus, I'm starved for trivia (at least, trivia that's not in reference to solo-heavy guitar players or Morrissey), which is the one thing I don't need.

Much has been written on how the Internet is rewiring our brains, turning us into attention-poor skimmers who know everything but nothing. In fact, I was just skimming for some quotes on this topic from Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows. One of my big reasons for leaving the Internet was to allow my brain some time to reset, and to take on the big challenges I'd like to set before it, like reading important books of western literature, and writing my oft-delayed Great American Sci-Fi Novel. But it never even crossed my mind that given the choice between the deep, permanent, and comprehensive knowledge that books can offer, and knowing nothing at all, I might chose the latter and align myself against the book worms.

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card, but learning is.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.