M. Giant's
Throwing stuff at the internet to see what sticks

Thursday, May 15, 2003  

The Economics of Trivia

"Never memorize something that you can look up." -- Albert Einstein

I have a certain affinity for retaining useless trivia. Used to be I was frequently the only person in the room who knew the distance between the earth and the sun, or the capital of Bolivia, or how to connect W. C. Fields to Kevin Bacon off the top of my head. Yes, these facts were useless to me in any practical sense, but the fact that I was the only person in immediate possession of them made them more valuable, in an entirely theoretical supply-and-demand sense. If I’d only taken a tip from DeBeers, I could have become rich.

Now, things have changed. There are still times when I’m the only one in the room who knows something, but then I zip my pants and come out of the W. C. and that’s the end of that. What with the Internet and Google and high-speed connections and the Internet Movie Database, the knowledge I once sat on carries less of a premium. And not just because it has my ass-prints all over it.

Now, before you click out thinking that this is just some Neo-Luddite you-kids-get-out-of-my-yard grumpy-old-man rant, I want to say that this is a good thing. I’ve benefited from it as much as anyone by filling in some of the yawning gaps in my encyclopedic mastery of the non-vital. And Google and Jeeves have been quite helpful for fact checking and researching past entries (a claim that may well stagger regular readers, but trust me: it could have been so much worse).

Feel free to click out now, but please do so out of boredom.

The thing is that I still have all of these useless facts in my head, and they’re more useless than ever because the Internet has rendered them all but ubiquitous. It comes in handy in situations when I don’t have access to the web, like at the pub quiz or in the car, but I can’t help thinking that I’m wasting valuable mental bandwidth storing away data that can now be accessed by any troglodyte with a keyboard. Factor in the things that a trained Information Professional like my wife can find out, and the only limits on what the average citizen can learn are the ones imposed by John Ashcroft.

I know people’s brains are wired in different ways, and people retain different things for different reasons. For instance, I can name more members of President Bartlet’s staff than President Bush’s, while my wife can effortlessly recall such minutiae as the due date for our mortgage and the fact that cats need food to live. We complement each other’s memories that way. Not to be confused with complimenting each other’s memories, which tends to be more of a one-way situation.

It would be interesting if we could just ditch information from our brains to make room for more, like we do with our hard drives. Or reconfigure our brains’ settings to maximize performance in certain areas at the expense of others. I wonder how many people would actually do that. I wonder if I would.

I can tell you one thing, though. If I did, this would be a hell of a lot better entry.

posted by M. Giant 3:35 PM 0 comments


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