The thing is that if you ring me today and ask me a trivia question, I may not be able to answer it. Usually, I am the first person you should come to if you want to know the dates of the emperor Caligula (37-41AD), the full name of Danger Mouse’s sidekick (Ernest Penfold), and whether Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis won the Best Actress Oscar in 1951 (neither, it was Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday).
But today, I cannot help you. Because today, Wikipedia is turned off for 24 hours, in protest at draconian new plans to combat piracy in the US, so I can’t double-check my facts. I am relying on the powers of my memory alone, and that isn’t what it once was.
And I’m not alone – yesterday, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wiki, suggested students do their homework early, because of the planned blackout today. Since Wikipedia didn’t exist when I last had homework to do, it hadn’t really occurred to me that academia would grind to a halt without it.
But perhaps it would do us all good to try for more than three seconds to remember something unaided. Or to look things up in books, using an index. We don’t have to do this every day, just today. I don’t think the internet has made us stupider – quite the reverse – but I do think it has made us lazier. And if we never bother to sit and work out which actor it is that’s in the TV adaptation of the book your mum likes, you know, the one with the woman in who was married to Robert whatshisname, we might lose the ability to remember that kind of information at all.
I don’t know the phone numbers of almost any of my friends, for example, because I never actually dial them. I look up the name, and my phone does the rest. Yet I can still remember every phone number I knew as a child, which must amount to hundred of digits in total. I had the capacity to remember long strings of numbers, but I’ve forgotten how to do it.
The same is surely true of sat-navs, a plague on society and all who drive in it. People managed to navigate their way around the globe before satellites, and not one of them ever drove their cart into a river because someone said to go that way. They looked at their surroundings and employed the criminally underrated skill of common sense.
So rather than panic at the loss of Wikipedia today, I intend to cope without it. I will read books and not get embroiled in trivia. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll look it up on IMDB.