Derek Jeter hit .314 in 1997. This was the first fact that mattered to me. I was nine when I read it off the back of his baseball card, and I recited it to whoever was willing to listen.
There was something that felt important about knowing this. Never mind knowing Jeter was a good player, I wanted to know exactly how good. From there, I wanted to compare. I’d pore over every baseball card I had, repeating the important stats from the important players until I had the numbers memorized.
My dad would constantly quiz me with questions like, “How many games did the Yankees win last year?”
“He knows everything,” I’d hear back from him when I answered 96.
That hunger for information expanded beyond sports and obsessed over the smallest facts of major historical events.
“Do you know what day of the week it was when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated?” I’d ask my dad, brother or whoever would bother with me. I’d give them a few seconds before blurting out, “Sunday! Sunday,” fresh off reading his bio page from Yahoo, Alta Vista, or whatever early-Internet search engine I happened to be using to find pointless facts.
The ultimate accomplishment in life, it seemed to me, was to be smart. And the best way to be smart was to know things, no matter how trivial.
Ken Jennings, famous for his stint as a contestant on Jeopardy, addressed the obsoleteness of the know-it-all in a TED talk.
The point Jennings discusses is one that is extremely hard to make without being accused of being just another bitter luddite: the idea that smart phones, and endless information at our fingertips, has made knowledge or, more simply, knowing stuff, a thing of the past.
I spent all of my formative years with the Internet, different from Jennings, so it’s hard to imagine a world without it. I can only flashback to the days of my early childhood when everything I knew about a player came from the back of a baseball card. But I can remember constantly debating with my family on stupid facts, like what movie won the Academy Award in a certain year, or where a major battle of World War II was fought. They’d be fun, harmless debates that often ended without finding the definitive answer.
Every Monday since I turned 21, I’ve gone to a bar in Oswego for its trivia night. Teaming up with my girlfriend and a couple of friends, we’ve been able to take down teams of professors, librarians and people 10 or more years our senior. The beer is good, and the people are all similar pain-in-the-ass brainiacs, so it quickly passed up any Friday night setting to become the part of my week I most look forward to.
The rules are simple: smart phones on the table. The prospect is horrifying. It’s a reminder of the limitations of our own minds when technology is no longer a crutch.
But in reality it’s freeing.
It’s an unusual feeling to sit and struggle with basic questions. What is the capital of Argentina? What actress played the mother in “Almost Famous?” Small, quick things that could be Googled and answered in seconds now become messes of logic and relationships to more immediately accessible knowledge. We comb through our own memories and experiences, like puzzle pieces put together for access to the most black and white of facts.
Still, when the rounds are over and the sheets are turned in, I go on a furious rush to Google every answer I had to think twice about. Suddenly, I have answers. The exercise evokes a feeling similar to that first breath of air after resurfacing from underwater.
Those moments when information isn’t at our fingertips are where a person shows their true self. They will answer what they care about. The things they took the time to remember. To know.
When I was home for winter break, a discussion on baseball started between my brother and me. Eventually it steered toward me saying Mickey Mantle hit more home runs in his career than Lou Gehrig. My brother did not believe this, and so we began to debate. This was a discussion that felt familiar. One where we would argue about the lengths of their respective careers, the type of players they were, before ultimately coming up with a way to come to an answer.
Before I finished my first sentence, my Dad, sitting on the other end of the room, had his phone out.
“Says here Mantle had more,” he said. “About 40 more.”
My brother and I nodded and moved on to another topic.