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By eliminating discomfort, is the Internet killing our ability to wonder?
We are so used to knowing that it has become distinctly uncomfortable not to know the answer to something.
The other day, I found myself livetweeting an old mixtape.
I’d found the tape in a box of old cassettes, wrapped in masking tape, its title scrawled in Sharpie, no tracklisting. I knew who it came from, a friend I’d connected with back in the mid-90s via the small world of Internet forums, and had recently reconnected with via the still relatively small world of Internet friendships.
I’d happened to find the tape on a day the Internet has designated for the celebration of nostalgia, Throwback Thursday. I posted a picture of its cover on Twitter, tagged my friend, and listed the first three songs. Most I’d had to figure out by searching for the lyrics. Some came up right away (Pavement’s “Texas Never Whispers”) while others took more digging (Bongwater’s “Frank”).
Others I couldn’t find at all with just lyrics, and so resorted to typing a few of the words in Twitter (“shoot it once remember gloves kill the god”), where my friend answered with “that’s Big Black” or “probably Propagandhi.”
In the midst of the songs, there was a mishmash of radio scans, samples from documentaries, Bukowski and Burroughs poems. Each time a new song started, I’d bend an ear to hear the lyrics, and type them into Google or Twitter, and there was my answer.
After Side A ended, my friend left to take a call, and I continued compiling the tracklisting offline.
Which is when it got really, really hard.
I’ve previously explored the idea of the Internet as repository for memories, a scrapbook of our deepest darkest memories, everything we could want to know, gigs we attended when we were 18, every song we have ever loved. But the Internet has yet to catch up to everything we could possibly want to know, and so there still remain holes in search engine query returns.
It wasn’t just the death metal and jazz (try to find a way to Google a jazz song). There were songs on this mixtape which, according to the Internet, just didn’t exist. Or, they existed, but not enough was known about them to surface in the right way.
I typed the lyrics of one song into Google and came up with a blog describe the precise scene where the song appeared in an episode of Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper walking down the hallway of the Black Lodge, the halls lined in velvet, but the actual name of the song and its singer were nowhere to be found with the first lyrics I typed. (A further search with later lyrics from the song and the words “Twin Peaks” revealed the song to be Jimmy Scott’s “Under The Sycamore Trees.”)
Other lyric searches landed me nowhere. I was agitated. How could something only partially exist in this vast database of knowledge? How could we be left with so many potholes in our information superhighway?
And what was this feeling I felt when I hit those holes, this not knowing, this itching desire to have that hole patched up, filled and completed?
I’ve tried to isolate this feeling. It used to be called “wonder”—now it’s called “frustration.” We are so used to knowing that it has become distinctly uncomfortable not to know the answer to something.
It’s a uniquely new feeling—this discomfort, this fear of the unknown. We’ve always been suspicious of the things we don’t know the answer to, but now we’re hostile to the possibility of not knowing the answer to something. When we the last time anyone had a factual disagreement that wasn’t resolved quickly and confidently with an Internet search? At dinner parties across America, when a fact is disputed, smartphones come out, the answer is announced, the incorrect party demurs.
But at what cost? We no longer try to think our way through problems, try to work out the answer as best we can with the knowledge we do have. We no longer spend any time trying to convince the other person that we are right and they are wrong through the spirited art of debate. Instead we consult the computer. End of argument.
But what happens when the answer isn’t there, isn’t instantly apparent? What then?
It happens so rarely, but when it does, it only serves to highlight how comfortable we have become with the idea of the Internet, and it sometimes feels as if the entire Internet exists to support our newfound level of comfort. Instant solutions to problems—phone numbers, maps, research papers. We have become inextricably comfortable with the idea that this information will be at our fingertips at all times of day.
When it isn’t—when reception is weak, when your phone has died, when you’re in the middle of the woods and looking up at the stars and wanting to know which one is Cassiopea—the feeling we are left with is more challenging than trying to work out the answer.
This in itself is not a huge problem—so big deal, we pout. So we are momentarily irritated that we have to ask for directions or will have to wait to get home to find out what year the Hoover Dam was completed (1936) or whether or not Elvis ever performed in England (he didn’t).
But collectively, over the long-term, what could this reliance on easy access to information be doing to us as a culture?
When we translate wonder into frustration, what are we sacrificing? Is it why debate is now relegated to overly emotional shouting matches about controversial issues rather than level-headed discussions over everyday problems? Is it why we’ve become so focused on polarized sides of an issue? Is it why we refuse to consider things that we’ve never heard of? Is it the reason atheists are so adamant there can be no god?
I wonder—and now that word feels so loaded—if we don’t have enough wonder any more. If we’re too sure of ourselves, and too unwilling to bend our opinions. Because everything has an answer, the facts are already there for us. We have no choice in wonder.
In the box with my friend’s mixtape was another cassette from the past: 1978, my mother and I at the kitchen table, my childish voice imploring her to sing the ABCs with me. Our voices were taped over a Joan Baez album, and Joan’s own voice comes through now and again when my mom decided to stop recording so we could listen to the music. There’s the sound of birds out the windows; the chime of bells.
There is no way I could find out on the Internet the exact day when this occurred. I can find out who the President was (Carter) and what what Joan Baez song we were listening to (“Diamonds and Rust”), but the answer of what we ate that day and what we were wearing is not going to come up on Google—what my mother looked like in that light or what she was doing with her hands.
Sometimes the answers are better when not found in concrete fact.
If I dig deep, I can find comfort in the not knowing. In imagining what it might have been. In wonder, the possibilities are endless. I’ll leave this one up to wonder.
Zan McQuade is a writer, editor, photographer, translator, and baseball enthusiast living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her words and images can be found at www.thatcupoftea.com.