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Roger Davis: Go ahead, ask Google and take all the fun and mystery out of life

Roger Davis • Aug 20, 2013 at 4:57 PM

While we were having burgers with Marvin and Doris Ladd the other night, the conversation turned to music. When asked about my favorite artists, I brought up the incomparable awesomeness of Motorhead and its bass-playing frontman, Lemmy.

Much to my surprise, the Ladds had never heard of Motorhead. (I blame the schools.) However, like everyone else these days, Doris had a smartphone handy, and within seconds “Ace of Spades” was playing in all its frenetic glory. The Queen, meanwhile, had pulled up a photo of Lemmy on her own phone. The man is an icon, but let’s face it: He is not exactly handsome in the classical sense. Or any sense. Picture a Civil War general — who was also a warthog. That’s Lemmy. Still, in my book, that’s the way a rocker ought to look. Leave the pretty boys to the boy bands and the tweenyboppers.

After the smartphones were consulted about several other subjects, Doris said, “You know, Google is taking the fun out of life.”

She then told us that she and Marvin, in the grand tradition of good old-fashioned mischief, had been organizing a snipe hunt for a group of young people. The youngsters thought that going on a snipe hunt, whatever that might be, was a capital idea. Until, of course — well, you can guess what happened next. One of the urchins consulted Google via smartphone and spoiled all the fun.

Just as the Reformation gave every man the freedom to be his own priest, Google has given every man the capacity to be his own reference librarian. What once could take hours of digging through specialized and obscure reference materials can now be accomplished with a few clicks of a mouse or a few words typed into a phone. Google can find answers to practically any question that you might have — other than what’s “really” hidden away in Area 51? Want to know where Bela Lugosi is buried? Or how many calories are in a kiwi? Or the names of Neptune’s moons? Ask Google.

Generations before mine used to dream of faraway places like Timbuktu or Katmandu or Samarkand and wonder what sort of marvels those nearly mythic cities contained. Nowadays, I can fly there via Google Earth, virtually wander the streets and browse photo after photo of unfamiliar sights that those who lived before the Digital Age could only have imagined. If my curiosity yearns to explore places even more exotic, Google Earth can take me to the moon and Mars. Tomorrow the entire solar system and eventually the known universe will be enveloped, cataloged and digitized by Google.

Centuries ago, mapmakers drew sea monsters and inked “Here be dragons” in uncharted oceans and referred to mysterious landmasses as “terra incognita.” Today there’s precious little that’s incognita. If, for example, I want to check out a new bike trail, odds are someone has posted video, charted the elevation changes, taken a complete census of the resident squirrels and chipmunks and logged the GPS coordinates of all the interesting natural features.

Granted, we tend to think of Google as a necessity rather than a killjoy, but there are times when a little mystery, when not knowing is good for the spirit. Too much information isn’t conducive to a sense of adventure.

Legend has it that Alexander the Great wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. Perhaps we will rue the day when, to rework a phrase of William Faulkner’s, man’s reach no longer exceeds Google’s grasp.

Roger Davis is a Kingsport Times-News columnist. E-mail him at rdavis@timesnews.net.

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