When your toast starts talking to you, the Info Age has hit home | People & Places | Smithsonian
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When your toast starts talking to you, the Info Age has hit home

When your toast starts talking to you, the Info Age has hit home

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Our house is not old, but it leaks. Several windows need caulking. Doors are hard to close. Still, we assumed mere water was leaking in until we learned of a more dangerous seepage.

We were at the dinner table. Our daughter Elena was eating her peas, one by one. Suddenly she stopped. "The capital of Delaware is Dover," she said. "Exactly what do you mean by that?" I asked. She began to chant, "The capital of Delaware is Dover! The capital of Delaware is Dover!"

Elena is 4. She knows no more about the capital of Delaware than we do. We hadn't told her. Neither had her pre-school teacher.

We knew someday computers would be linked to phones, TVs, toasters. We'll touch a button on the compu-toaster and — beeeeep! — along with our toast, we'll be served statistics on per capita toast consumption, the fat content of butter and other vital data. But although we knew the Info-future was coming, we didn't realize it had already begun to leak into our home.

 

A week later, my wife went to the laundry basket. Lying there among the sheets was the 1990 census for the state of New York. "Did you put this here?" she asked. I didn't. Neither did our daughter, the mailman or the dog. The data had just leaked in. Like all random information, it came from nowhere, meant nothing and made us feel stupid.

"Bet you didn't know the population of Poughkeepsie is 28,844," I said. "Will this be on the test?" my wife asked.

The next week, I opened the freezer. Out tumbled an encyclopedia — "Volume VII, Egret to Fond du Lac." We went away and forgot to close a window; when we came back, the living room was littered with Civil War histories.

I grew up believing that facts were our friends. How could information hurt us? "The informed citizen is the cornerstone of democracy," Jefferson said. Or was it Jefferson? Willa Cather, maybe? Mick Jagger? Whoever said it believed that information was truth, but in our house information was becoming a pest. Random facts were turning up in our food, our dreams, our conversations. We had to do something.

The next day we caulked all windows and doors with Info-block, a silicon-based fact sealant. Info-block was both info-proof and noise-proof. When we threw our TV out the second-floor window, it crashed on the driveway without a sound. For a few blissful weeks, Info-block kept our home fact-free.

Then one morning I found an envelope in the microwave. "Are You Keeping Pace With Today's Info Age?" it asked. We read the letter inside. If we joined the Fact-of-the-Month Club, it said, we'd receive the World's Top 150 Facts for only $1.95. Then each month, we'd get more Fun Facts. We'd learn the average speed of the Galápagos tortoise, the atomic weight of tungsten, the National League RBI leader in 1947.

How had the envelope found its way into our microwave? And what would be next — actuarial tables in the alcove? Stray spreadsheets in the study?

That night at dinner Elena said, "The 1947 National League RBI leader was Johnny Mize." Then, before we could even gasp, she asked, "What's an RBI?"

Our Info-seal had broken. We were defenseless against the constant barrage of facts that define modern life. We tried rubbing Info-repellent all over our bodies, but the data still swarmed around us. We sprayed the house with Fact-B-Gone, the ignorance-based spray so many people are using these days. For a few hours, no idle facts occurred to us. Then my wife said, "Hey, bet you didn't know that the G.D.P. of Cameroon is $8 billion." I ran from the room, screaming a list of U.S. Vice Presidents, Adams to Gore.

When the data settled, I tried to remain calm. "Maybe we could live with our leaks," I said. All our friends were awash in trivia. We knew people who couldn't name their Congressman, but they knew the first name of every last goalie in the National Hockey League. Their kids weren't sure which state they lived in, but they could sing whale songs till the cows came home. And somehow they made it through the day.

We were informed citizens. Surely we could pick and choose the drivel that dribbled into our home. Then one morning, I was awakened by a low buzz. Tracing it to the bathroom, I found my electric razor humming "That Old Devil Moon." That did it.

Before we'd jettisoned the TV, we'd seen the commercials. For only $1,995 we could put a laser-equipped Fact Zapper on the roof to shoot down all incoming data. We couldn't remember Fact Zapper's 800 number, but we waited a moment and it came to us. We called. Within a week, we were armed for the Information Wars. Now, every few minutes we hear a zaaaaap! Another fact meets its maker.

Shielded from the data-glutted world, we now live in a Garden of Eden. Not a drop of crude information leaks in. We have forgotten everything we ever knew about Delaware, Vice Presidents and the G.D.P. of Cameroon. We got a scare one day when Elena blurted out the capital of Montana, but it turned out she had learned it in preschool. Still, we were skittish until we heard zaaaaap! "It's all right," I said. "We're safe." Once upon a time, ignorance was bliss, but in the Info Age, it's self-defense.

By Bruce Watson

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