Trivia in the age of Google

On the wall of our staff room, next to the kettle, there used to be a list of how people took their tea and coffee. Brian: Tea = milk, one sugar. Coffee = black, one sugar. On down for a number of staff. At some point, someone got rid of the list, and you know what: I don’t miss it a bit.

The list was a practical solution to a problem, which is when you’re making a hot drink for someone, you can’t remember how they take it. But fear not, traveller; you don’t have to ask them. Simply consult the list.

This tale is, of course, a case of complete trivia worthy of The Office. It’s trivia whose importance on life’s grand stage disappears into an absolute vanishing point. But I found it weirdly interesting, because it’s an example of how a practical solution inadvertently eliminates an opportunity to talk to our fellow human beings. This upsets me, because I love practical solutions, but I also love talking to humans.

“Do you want a cup of tea?”

“Yes please, Brian.”

“How do you take it?”

“Milk and two sugars please, Brian.”

In her book Watching the English, the anthropologist Kate Fox examines the place that our seemingly empty weather-talk occupies in English communication. (‘Nice day, isn’t it’ / ‘Yes, isn’t it’). She observes:

“English weather-speak rituals often sound rather like a kind of catechism, or the exchanges between priest and congregation in a church: ‘Lord, have mercy on us’, ‘Christ, have mercy upon us.'”

Exchanges about how people take their hot drinks occupy a similar role in office-talk, though the dialogue involves slightly more content than your average conversation about the weather. I wonder if that was why the list in our staff room was taken down by some mystery worker, binned and never replaced.

Meanwhile, on the internet

A few years ago, some wag got tired of people asking him questions which could be answered by Google, and set up, or Let Me Google That For You (“For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than google it for themselves.”) The site is a teaspoonful of humiliation for timewasters who have failed to take advantage of the independence offered by the world’s favourite search engine. It became fairly popular for a while (since you didn’t ask, here’s how popular, plotted on a graph over time, courtesy of Google). It’s a fair joke, playing on the idea that there are some things we don’t need to ask each other anymore. What’s the name of that actor who played Potsie in Happy Days? It’s a totally pointless question to ask anyone. Anyone who really wanted to know would be better off going straight to IMDb; a few clicks, and you’d have it. It almost seems bizarre that twenty years ago, before we started drowning in data, conversations with friends were a common way to establish trivia.

I’m going too far, I suspect. Our conversations are still peppered with trivia questions. The internet serves as an adjudicator in case of a dispute, or if no one knows the answer. But here’s something interesting: when we find out the answer, there’s usually a feeling of satisfaction tinged with disappointment. I call it “Satispointment”. The satisfaction is because we know; the disappointment, because we feel like Lucy in Peanuts: “Now that I know that, what do I do?”

from a yellowed copy of “You’ve Got a Friend, Charlie Brown”, London: Coronet, 1973

Maybe exchanges about trivia are a disappearing habit. The internet is getting better and better at answering our trivia questions. Faster and simpler ways of accessing this information are cropping up every year. Will we one day reach a point where trivia questions disappear from our everyday conversation? In short, is the future a place where we talk to each other less?

Proponents of a technological dystopia would say yes. Just look at the kids with their headphones glued to their ears, cut off from any interaction with their fellow brothers and sisters. Just look at the phone zombies who walk our streets up and down the land, eyes covered in a thin milky glaze. Optimists may point to the present: the fact that we still talk crap to each other despite the fibre-optic cables serving up limitless amounts of the stuff. They may even point to the past: that steps forward in technology frequently mean more communication, not less. This second point is more powerful for me. Were people ever really nostalgic for an age before the telephone? Were things better before a reliable postal service allowed us to communicate with far away family members? In the same way, nostalgia for a time before the internet took over our lives seems misplaced. Besides, it has been frequently pointed out that new technology doesn’t always replace the old. Radio was followed by TV and then personal computers. None of them have become obsolete; now we just use all of them at the same time. So it is with discussions of trivia – pub quizzes, even – in the age of smartphones and Google. Somehow, in the face of adversity, they manage to co-exist.

The main lesson I took from the disappearance of the “How do you take yours?” milk/sugar list was that efficiency is not always popular when it interferes with our rituals of communication. Maybe it’s because the rituals are older than the technology. Someone observed on Reddit once that in reading Reddit first thing every morning, they are just like their father who started every day with a newspaper at the breakfast table. That’s a ritual, if ever I saw one, reshaping itself to fit new modes of communication.

Since we live in a world where efficiency is like a god to us, it might be worth asking why that is. Was efficiency always worshipped like it is now? Or is it the result of the great capitalist enterprise of making more and spending less? I would imagine efficiency was never bad. The interesting question is what trumps it.

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