The past will never end

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.

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