Fifteen years ago, “I don’t know” was a regular part of our vocabulary. And then it all changed. I remember the night, shortly after I got my first high-speed connection, when a group of my friends were over and got into a conversation about Clifford the Big Red Dog. What was the name of Clifford’s owner, someone wondered?
I ducked into my study and came back with the answer: Emily Elizabeth. And I was greeted with astonishment: how had I found the answer? When I explained that I’d simply done an online search, my friends were all amazed that I would think to look up a question online and get an answer immediately.
Today many of us have the same instinct when faced with a factual question: let’s Google it. Gone are the long, drunken arguments about how many seasons Wonder Woman was on TV. Gone are the debates over whether condoms are more or less effective than the pill. Gone are the agonizing hours spent in an effort to recall the name of that book you read in 12th grade.
And here’s one more thing that is, if not gone, then a lot less commonly heard: “I don’t know”.
“I don’t know” was once a routine part of conversation, covering everything from the French word for dragonfly (libellule) to the differences between NFL and CFL rules. There was no shame in admitting that you didn’t know some random factoid (unless it was the date of your wedding anniversary, or the name of the current US president) because there was no obvious way of retrieving the answer.
Now an “I don’t know” lasts only as long as it takes to pull out an iPhone or Blackberry. And that’s assuming you got as far as asking a question in the first place: with 24 hour news, Twitter, and RSS, the latest information has often reached us before we have thought to go looking for it.
There is an awesome side to this (I for one hate the suspense of wondering where I’ve seen that actor before…thank you, IMDB) but it comes at a price. We’ve transitioned from a world of (at least temporarily) unanswerable questions to a world of (mostly) answerable ones. What we’ve held onto is the cultural norm that you should know whatever you could know.
That worked fine when what you could know was pretty limited: the contents of the morning’s paper, the latest office gossip, the life story of whoever got interviewed yesterday on the radio or TV. Multiply those inputs by, oh, a thousand (which is a gross underestimation) and voila! there is a hell of a lot more data flying at you than you can parse, let alone retain.
And yet we are all scrambling to preserve the illusion that we are somehow on top of whatever we are supposed to know. “Supposed to” is in this case determined by an unpredictable and constantly shifting algorithm based on variables including who you know, what kind of work you do, how smart you are perceived to be, what your hobbies are, and how late you stay up at night. Most of all it is determined by who you are going to run into: the perfect amount of knowledge is equal to everything known to the people you are going to see in the next 24 hours, plus one additional factoid you can use to wow them with your superior on-top-of-it-ness.
I’ve been struck by our fear of “I don’t know” ever since I cut my daily news consumption back to the New York Times plus a handful of iGoogle headlines, and even more since I stopped routinely reading my “all friends” feed in Twitter. As a result I do find myself in conversations where everybody except me knows a recent tech or Canadian news story, and I’m not above the occasional unearned nod that implies I’ve already heard something I’m hearing for the first time. Apparently my fear of becoming a major bullshit artist is less acute than my fear of saying “I don’t know”.
But lately, that fear has been ebbing. With my public confessions about giving up on “all friends”, and abandoning Google Reader in favour of a more concentrated news dose via iGoogle, I’m letting go of the need to pretend I’m keeping up. I’m not keeping up! And I don’t know.