There was a blogging flurry (a "blurry," if you will) last week over another study, asking whether the always-on, everywhere internet is making us dumber, or at least affecting our memories. And it's true, I no longer need to remember that the bushy-browed professor in "Ball of Fire" was played by Oskar Homolka - IMDB takes care of that for me. And I don't see that as a bad thing, because that was the kind of information I never really needed, but for some reason felt compelled to maintain, even though it took up space that probably should have gone to remembering my wedding anniversary or my mother's birthday. (And yet, not everything has changed, 'cause it didn't take me a google to come up with Oskar's name.) So maybe we remember less because we can now get information in a second, and maybe that's okay. (Although I'd like to be able to come up with a mental construct that describes electrical reactive power without having to fly to Wikipedia every time.)
But what is being lost is the nagging mystery, the curious question that sticks in your mind for months or even years, perhaps being resolved by chance, perhaps never being resolved at all. It used to happen all the time . . . you might see a sign on the street, or pass by a building with odd initials and wonder what it could mean. You might see a forgotten symbol and file it away under the things you wanted to figure out the meaning of someday. You might encounter an untranslatable phrase and stick it in the back of your mind until you hit the right book or old professor who could tell you what it all meant.
And it hasn't even been all that long. It took me years (years!) before I solved the mystery of the name of the movie "Repeat Performance," a barely remembered bit of late-night black-and-white fluff that I only remembered for its portrayal of a poet whose patroness had promised him a volume bound with morrocoed endpapers. But as the depth of the archived material on the internet grows, as search goes deeper and deeper into connected storage, it's only a matter of time before that search, like so many others, takes me seconds. When I publish a snippet on Hoxsie, I routinely look up the names of the people in the ads or articles from the 19th century, and more often than not I find out something else about them. It's probably easier for me to learn the history of Moses Jones, practical slater, here in 2011 than it would have been when he was roofing St. Joseph's Church back in the 1850s. That's just fundamentally strange, and an altogether new condition of the modern world, yet we've come to accept it as normal in a very short time.
As I rode the train past Philadelphia the other day, I gazed out the window and saw an odd sign along the tracks: "Rule 292 / Stop / Here." In any other day and age, I'd have been amused, wondering how I would know if Rule 292 applied to me or not, hoping that the people who really needed to know would know. But now I was able to figure it out before the train got to the next station. Takes all the mystery out of life.