Knowing Stuff

APRIL 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Debra Rienstra

I admit there’s something romantic about woodstoves and typewriters and horse-drawn carriages and other technologies of the past—for about ten minutes. Then, get me back to my central heating, my laptop, and my minivan. And definitely, definitely: give me the internet. There’s nothing romantic about not knowing stuff.

Questions I have asked the internet this week:

  • What’s the weather going to be in Albany, New York?
  • Should I be worried about this early, warm spring?
  • Why does the water from my fridge taste bad?
  • What does frangipani look like? or ixora? or a flame-of-the-forest tree?
  • How did Neil Diamond get started? (Long story . . .)
  • What has Patrick Madden published and what is his bio?
  • When are the Olympics this summer?
  • Can I get an instruction manual for this outdoor light timer installed in the 1980s? (Answer: yes—and there’s a pdf.)
  • Was Nicholas Breton’s 1602 publication The Soules Harmonie a sonnet sequence or just religious verse?

That last question I answered using the miraculous digital research databases I can access because my institution subscribes to them. (Answer: just religious verse, and not very good verse either.) So MLA bibliography, JSTOR, Gale Research: I salute you with deep and heartfelt gratitude. When I wrote my dissertation (in Iowa, 1992–95), if I had wanted to look at Breton’s little book, I would have had to go to the University of Iowa library and wrangle microfilm—after figuring out the correct reel number by looking it up in a multivolume print catalog using an arcane and confusing numbering system and then getting a librarian to find me the stupid box with the reel in it. Elapsed time: an entire morning, if all went well. Today, with a few strategic clicks using the Early English Books Online database, I can see original editions of any book printed in English from 1475 to 1700. It’s all there in digital format. I can access it from home. Elapsed time: two minutes.

A few weeks ago we bought a car and made use of Edmunds.com, the Kelly Blue Book site, the Kia corporate site, and numerous other online car-buying tools. How on earth did people buy cars before the internet? I shudder to imagine. Either you spent hours at the library reading car journals (not up-to-the-minute, and not going to help you with local pricing or which dealers have the exact model you want) or you trusted the salespeople and your own irrational impulses in the showroom. (“Oooooo, seat warmers!”) Yikes.

My children take instant knowledge for granted. We’re watching Hello, Dolly!—which we pulled up instantly with Netflix streaming via the Wii—and they want to know what Barbra Streisand’s first movie role was, and how old she was at the time. No, I mean they want to know now. Pause the movie and find out. “Oh fine,” my husband and I sigh, because we’re curious too. (Answer: Funny Girl in 1968, and she won a Best Actress Oscar for it; she was twenty-six.) “You know,” we comment before resuming the movie, “back in our day, we just didn’t know stuff.

How would I have found out about, say, Neil Diamond’s early career if for some unimaginable reason I had wanted to know in 1979? I could hope, I suppose, for a documentary aired on one of the four TV channels. I would only have known about such an event by checking the newspaper TV listings daily. And I would have had to watch it when it aired since we didn’t have DVR. I think we had a VCR by then, but it had a remote control linked to the unit with a cord—seriously— and couldn’t be preprogrammed without the use of binary, not to mention the fact that you couldn’t record one channel while watching another.

OK, so giving up on the vain hope of a TV special, I could have gone to the library, but how would I have known, in the days before searchable digital library catalogs, whether there were books on Neil Diamond? We had cards, adorable little drawers of cards, painstakingly typed and impossible to pry apart with your fingers. Never mind, I think I’ll head off to the record store and see if they have any fan magazines that might happen to have an article on Mr. Diamond. Or I could ask the guy behind the counter and risk humiliation: “Why do you want to know that?” he would say, disdainfully. You know what? Forget it. I’ll just be happy in ignorance.

But in 2012, it took us about 3.7 seconds to find an article on Neil Diamond’s early career. Ten minutes later, we knew about his years in the songwriting sweatshop and his breakthrough songwriting hit in 1966 (“I’m a Believer,” for the Monkees).

So what, you say? Who cares about Neil Diamond? Granted, I could live a rich and full life in total ignorance on this question. I don’t even like Neil Diamond’s music. In fact: yuck. But still, it’s pretty cool that if I want to know, I can, just like that.

I understand that there’s a crucial difference between information and knowledge. I fully affirm the need for real people with extreme expertise working in real time in person—doctors, say, and professors and electricians. Also true: there’s a lot of nonsense on the internet, both homespun and commercial. (For fun, type in “how to cure warts.” Enjoy!) Nevertheless, we have a very different relationship to information now, in the information age, than we did just thirty years ago.

I like it. Given a little discernment and savvy, it’s a lot easier to build knowledge when vastly more information is vastly more available. Is it easier to gain wisdom? Oh, that’s hard to say. Probably not. The fear of the Lord is still the beginning there. But at least I can find that verse in the Bible in ten seconds flat on BibleGateway. com. (Answer: Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10.)

Debra Rienstra teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the review editor of Perspectives.