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Posted at 04:00 PM ET, 01/18/2012

Why we need trivia — censorship and the Wikipedia blackout


This might be Orwellian, but I’m not sure. (Eric Risberg - AP)
The day without Wikipedia started off all right.

9:03 AM: This is fine.

9:04 AM: I am curious what the plot of “Tea With Mussolini” was, but I’m sure I can find that elsewhere.

9:06 AM: I MUST KNOW THE POPULATION OF NORTH DAKOTA NOW OR I’LL RUPTURE SOMETHING.

Curiosity used to kill the cat. Now it just keeps the cat riveted in front of Wikipedia all day reading up on the mating habits of banana slugs.

Without it, I’m nervous and jittery. I need my fix.

I go out on the street and cadge. “Just tell me something about Grover Cleveland,” I mutter, slipping a fiver into the hands of a bespectacled man on the corner. “Or Benjamin Harrison. Or, heck, Millard Fillmore.”

“You’re really desperate,” he says, launching into an anecdote about Harrison’s marriage late in life to a woman decades his junior.

“Thank God,” I mutter. I can breathe again.

This is starting to be a problem.

See what we’ve become? Wikipedia goes dark for a few hours, and we become information savages, piling upon anyone with a loaded caravan of irrelevant facts. “Stand and deliver!” we yell. “Tell us everything you know about noble gases.”

One of the fundamental human desires is the lust for trivia.

We’re all hoarders. Some of us fill our homes with flammable materials and Favorite Chunks of Asbestos, and a cable show has to come stage an intervention. Some of us collect stamps.

Some of us squirrel away nuggets of information. “You never know when you’ll need to know who the 23rd was,” we mutter, stashing it behind Uncommon Types of Trees and The Bodily Humors.

This isn’t much better than most hobbies. The national bird of New Zealand is the factual equivalent of those ceramic figurines of angel cats.

But today its name comes in handy.

Wikipedia’s one-day blackout — to protest anti-piracy legislation in Congress — seemed, in theory, like a grand holiday for trivia buffs. The people in our offices who had ignored our treasure-troves of minutiae about the Greek gods were going to come crawling back, now that their precious Wikipedia had bitten the dust. “Tell me more about Dionysus,” they were going to say, respectfully.

But there’s something unsettling about this.

Before, no matter how indignant you got about something, you couldn’t shut down all the encyclopedias.

Sure, we still have libraries. But none of us has been inside a library in decades, and we are not certain how to return. They are full of homeless men, and you have to sit under the vaguely disapproving gaze of decade-old posters of Orlando Bloom encouraging you to read. The last time we went to a library was to use the Wi-Fi there to look up something on Wikipedia,

But the idea that someone can actually shut off the world’s biggest encyclopedia — for however good a cause, just to prove a point — is, well, a little unnerving. I supported it. But the reality makes me a bit chary. I would say it feels Orwellian, but I want to look up the plot of “1984” just to be sure, and I can’t right now.

This is what happens when we store all our information off-site. This is what happens when we become dependent upon not the valiant little nub of salts that make up the human brain but the dubious Grand Repository of Everything online. To get rid of a paper encyclopedia, you have to burn something. Wikipedia goes off with the flick of a metaphorical switch.

This is one of those days when we realize how little we know. We have spent our lives figuring out where to get the information we require (without really absorbing that information). Now, for a moment, we’re left alone with the contents of our own heads, and the pickings are slim.

Thank God for the information hoarders. “This isn’t Orwellian,” they say. “It’s like “Fahrenheit 451,” a novel by Ray Bradbury published in — ”

“Or we could just visit Wikipedia’s mobile site,” everyone else says. “Or access it through Google and stop the page from loading before the blackout message appears.”

“Or that,” they say. “I was going to tell you that.”

By  |  04:00 PM ET, 01/18/2012

Tags:  Wikipedia, the Internet

 
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