July 21, 2012 at 8:00 PM
Here’s to the age of nothing you can’t know
When did “I don’t know” begin to die?
It used to be so there, so accepted — a perfectly legitimate end to a topic of conversation. Now it’s a mere inconvenience. A tiny speed bump on the digital road to knowledge. We roll right over it as someone pulls out a smartphone and settles a question, not giving poor, old “I don’t know” so much as a second thought.
Lately, I’ve been watching to see if, when the plugged-in gather, “I don’t know” ever stands a chance.
My husband, my brother and I were grilling hot dogs one afternoon this summer, having a good, uninterrupted chat, when my brother asked the question: Why does aluminum foil stay cool on the grill?
We speculated for a bit, mostly clueless, then — I could barely believe it — moved on to other things. My smartphone was inside. So was my husband’s. But my brother’s was right there on our patio table, waiting. A minute later, when our attention returned to the grill, I knew it was over.
“That’s it,” my brother said, already tapping away. “Now I have to look it up.”
Ancient scholars would kill to live in our world. Almost nothing that is generally known to others is unknowable to us. Wikipedia on its own is a stunning collection of evolving human cognizance. Add in the rest of the Internet, and the seeming infinity of it all is enough to blow your mind — from old, seasoned history to last week’s news to potential truths so raw and ragged they’ve just spilled from someone’s head onto the pages of blogs, forums, Twitter, YouTube, or any remote corner of the Web.
We’re doing it. We’re making The Library. Not only that, we’re putting it, well, everywhere, and keeping its doors open all day. Want to know what you want to know when you want to know it? Get a smartphone and a data plan. Done.
You can get real-time information lots of ways, but it’s quick-draw smartphone users who are slaying “I don’t know” in ever-accelerating numbers. According to a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 46 percent of smartphone users — more men than women, I should note — had used their phones in the previous month to look up information to settle an argument.
I see my father-in-law abide uncertainty for just one thing — the weekly New York Times crossword puzzle. If it takes days to figure out that 29 Down is actor Alain Delon, that’s part of the fun. But get into a lunchtime back-and-forth about the elevation of Mount Rainier (14,411 feet) or whether Brisbane is on the eastern or western coast of Australia (eastern) and he and his smartphone are on the case. To him and so many others, “I don’t know” is a cue, not an answer.
It’s incredible, really. In the pursuit of knowledge, more and more of us can zip ahead and catch it.
So if “I don’t know” is dying, who’s going to care?
“If I can know something and I don’t — that just doesn’t make sense,” a friend told me over hors d’oeuvres at a tech event this spring. I was several months pregnant, he’d asked if we were having a boy or a girl, and I’d told him we didn’t want to know until the little one was born. Seconds later, he started apologizing.
I laughed. His reaction was nothing to be sorry about. If anything, it’s the most natural response of our know-it-now culture. Whether the information of the moment comes from the Web or an ultrasound, if you can get it and use it, why wouldn’t you want to?
There are just a couple circumstances in which I let “I don’t know” live. One is surprises. They’re awesome, even if it means friends and relatives can’t send shipments of bright pink bows and ribbons months ahead of a birth (or maybe because of that).
Another is conversation. As much as I appreciate knowing that a very young Michael Shannon (of “Boardwalk Empire” fame) has a couple lines of dialogue in “Groundhog Day,” I don’t necessarily want to derail a good discussion to learn it.
It’s easier than ever to resolve a pressing uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean every pressing uncertainty should be resolved. At least, not right then. It’s ironic, in a way, but if you value connection — offline and on — you’ve got to let some “I don’t knows” slide.
Foil, by the way, stays cool on the grill because the aluminum, which doesn’t hold heat well, is pressed so thin and made so reflective that it cools almost as quickly as it warms.
With this column, Mónica Guzmán will be on leave until September. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest? You may reach her in the meantime via email, on Twitter @moniguzman or on Facebook.