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Back in My Day, We Just Didn’t Know Stuff

By March 23, 2012 4 Comments

I admit there’s something romantic about wood stoves and typewriters and horse-drawn carriages and other technologies of the past.  For about ten minutes.  Then, get me back to my central heating, my laptop, and my minivan.  And definitely, definitely: give me the internet.  There’s nothing romantic about not knowing stuff.

Questions I have asked the internet this week:

  • What’s the weather going to be in Albany, New York?
  • Should I be worried about this early, warm spring?
  • Why does the water from my fridge taste bad?
  • What does frangipani look like? or ixora? or a flame-of-the-forest tree?
  • How did Neil Diamond get started? (Long story why I wanted to know that one.)
  • What has Patrick Madden published and what is his bio?
  • When are the Olympics this summer?
  • Can I get an instruction manual for this outdoor light timer installed in the 1980s? (Answer: yes—and there’s a pdf.)
  • Was Nicholas Breton’s 1602 publication The Soules Harmonie a sonnet sequence? or just religious verse?

That last question I answered using the miraculous digital research databases I can access because my institution subscribes to them.  (Answer: just religious verse, and not very good verse, either.)  So MLA bibliography, JSTOR, Gale Research: I salute you with deep and heartfelt gratitude.  When I wrote my dissertation—in Iowa, 1992-95—if I had wanted to look at Breton’s little book, I would have had to go to the University of Iowa library and wrangle microfilm—after figuring out the correct reel number by looking it up in a multi-volume print catalog using an arcane and confusing numbering system and then getting a librarian to find me the stupid box with the reel in it.  Elapsed time: an entire morning, if all went well.  Today, with a few strategic clicks, I can see original editions of any book printed in English from 1475-1700 using the Early English Books Online database.  It’s all there in digital format.  I can access it from home.  Elapsed time: two minutes.

A few weeks ago we bought a car, making use of, the Kelly Blue Book site, the Kia corporate site, and numerous other online car-buying tools.  How on earth did people buy cars before the internet?  I shudder to imagine.  Either you spent hours at the library reading car journals (not up-to-the-minute, and not going to help you with local pricing or which dealers have the exact model you want), or you trusted the salespeople and your own irrational impulses in the showroom.  (“Oooooo, seat warmers!”)  Yikes.

My children take instant knowledge for granted.  We’re watching Hello Dolly—which we pulled up instantly with Netflix streaming via the Wii—and they want to know what Barbra Streisand’s first movie role was, and how old she was at the time.  No, I mean they want to know NOW.  Pause the movie and find out.  “Oh fine,” we sigh, because we’re curious, too.  (Answer: Funny Girl, 1968, and she won a Best Actress Oscar for it; she was 26.)  “You know,” we comment before resuming the movie, “back in my day, we just didn’t know stuff.”

I mean, how would I have found out about, say, Neil Diamond’s early career if for some unimaginable reason I wanted to know in 1979?  I could hope, I suppose, for a documentary aired on one of the four TV channels.  I would only know about such an event if I checked the newspaper TV listings daily.  And I would have to watch it when it aired, because we didn’t have DVR.  I think we had a VCR by then, but it had a remote control linked to the unit with a cord—seriously—and you couldn’t preprogram it without knowing binary, and you couldn’t record one channel while watching another. 

OK, so giving up on the vain hope of a TV special, I could have gone to the library, but how would I have known whether there were books on Neil Diamond?  This was before searchable digital library catalogs.  We had cards, adorable little drawers of cards, painstakingly typed and impossible to pry apart with your fingers.  Never mind, I think I’ll head off to the record store and see if they have any fan magazines that might happen to have an article on Mr. Diamond.  Or I could ask the guy behind the counter and risk humiliation: “Why do you want to know that?” he would say, disdainfully.  You know what?  Forget it.  I’ll just be happy in ignorance.

But in 2012, it took us about 3.7 seconds to find an article on Neil Diamond’s early career.  Ten minutes later, we knew about his years in the song-writing sweat shop and his breakthrough songwriting hit in 1966 (“I’m a Believer,” for the Monkees). 

So what, you say?  Who cares about Neil Diamond?  Granted, I could live a rich and full life in total ignorance on this question.  I don’t even like Neil Diamond’s music.  In fact: yuck.  But still, it’s pretty cool that if I want to know, I can, just like that.

I understand that there’s a crucial difference between information and knowledge.  I fully affirm the need for real people with extreme expertise working in real time in person—doctors, say, and professors and electricians.  Also true: there’s a lot of nonsense on the internet, both homespun and commercial.  (For fun, type in “how to cure warts.”  Enjoy!)  Nevertheless, we have a very different relationship to information now, in the information age, than we did just thirty years ago. 

I like it.  Given a little discernment and savvy, it’s a lot easier to build knowledge when vastly more information is vastly more available.  Is it easier to gain wisdom?  Oh, that’s hard to say.  Probably not.  The fear of the Lord is still the beginning there.  But at least I can find that verse in the Bible in ten seconds flat on  (Answer: Psalm 111:10, also Proverbs 9:10.)


Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • So true! And I think the implications of this changing relationship with information are fascinating. This is something I both talk about and experience as a grad student. For instance, in any given one of my seminars, at least a few students use laptops, and we all have access to the campus wireless network (even if we didn't, so many have smartphones). It's more or less common practice to interact with course material/discussion/lecture in a plugged-in, logged-on way. Prof can't remember the name of such-and-such a book by so-and-so? Google to the rescue. Only three people in the class have seen a Luna Moth? Image search for the win. One of my colleagues consistently looks up the scholarly articles or research mentioned in class and shares them via our course listserve (or a course-specific Facebook group; that's happened, too).

    This has further interesting implications in the ways it affects power relationships, in the classroom and beyond: students can challenge teachers. Those on the lower end of a hierarchical system can communicate, share information, and potentially keep power in check. This is, of course, far too big an issue to explore in a blog comment – in fact, I think it's going to inform my much-longer-than-a-comment thesis. Which brings up the final interesting implication I'll mention here: how would your diss have necessarily been different if you were writing it with today's technologies? I happen to think it'd be both easier and more difficult, but I wasn't doing much, er, scholarly work myself back in the early-/mid-90s, so I have no standard for comparison. Because, in fact, I have no concept of writing a significant researched project without the Internet (!).

    Last thought: Neil Diamond? Really?

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Hi, Deb. Once again, I so enjoy your whimsical, thoughtful writing. Thank you.

    One of my colleagues is fond of saying that in 24 hours folks in the technologically-developed world are inundated with more information than a person living in the middle ages encountered in a lifetime. I'm not sure how accurate that is, but I believe the gist of it entirely. What I wonder about, then, is the impact of this on our self-connection, interpersonal relationships, and communal relationships. As someone whose iPhone (which I didn't even want initially) is functionally an extension of my hand, I wonder not only what I lose in relationship but also in learning when I'm checking email, texting, and browsing the internet for data instead of focusing on my engagement with others in a given setting.

    Oh and BTW . . . here are a few questions that I asked the internet in the past two days during meetings at a conference:

    1. How old is Steven Tyler? (I was thinking about American Idol.)
    2. Has a PhD student's dissertation, Along the Straight and Narrow, been published yet?
    3. What's the content of the Supreme Court's recent decision in the case of the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School vs. the EEOC?

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks, Theresa and Alissa, for your responses. Look, I'm sorry about Neil Diamond, OK? Anyway, your comments on information and power are intriguing. Hmmm. Have to think about that one, or I'll just wait till your thesis comes out and I'll read it on the internet. How would my dissertation be different? I think it would be better. I was very dependent on editions and I had very little access to original print versions of things, which is a big deal in 16th century studies. Plus, since the internet has been making facsimiles of books and manuscripts available, the whole field has gotten better, so now we have more and better editions of more stuff. Used to be, only a very few scholars could make it to the Bodleian or the Huntington or the Folger. Now many many more of us have access to those collections digitally. Maybe another interesting power dynamic there. As for the personal connection angle, yeah, that's the question isn't it? I did not raise the topic of Facebook. I'm curious how that has increased connections or maybe not. I'm not on Facebook because I am terrified of being overwhelmed with people-connections. However, I personally don't have much trouble turning away from the devices when I'm with people, but I am not infrequently irritated when other people can't seem to do so. By the way, how old IS Steve Tyler? Oh never mind, I'll just look it up a minute…

  • Sherrie says:

    My friends and I loved this post … we often talk about how great it is to finally – FINALLY – know the answers to questions that, when we were growing up, we just assumed we'd go our lifetimes without ever knowing. What is this mysterious lavalier that the Wakefield twins each wore in the "Sweet Valley High" books? What are chinos? (In Iowa, we called them "khakis.") What's this Turkish delight stuff that was so good, Edmund was willing to sell out his siblings for it? (The reality of that was a huge letdown, by the way.) <p>

    I'm still a huge believer in proper research that includes references from actual academic sources (not, you know, Wikipedia or some guy). But I love the Internet for how it enriches my experiences with culture, esp. cultures of the past or of other countries. Now when I see a reference to French macarons (which definitely are NOT to be confused with American macaroons), I can pull up a picture, description, even a recipe, and see the difference. I think perhaps this is something that someone who grew up in a large, diverse metro area like New York City, with its wide variety of foods, cultures and information, may not be able to appreciate as much as someone who grew up in a very small, very homogeneous town. I know that the experience of kids growing up now in my hometown, with access to Netflix, the Internet,, etc., etc., is so very different from the narrow informational and cultural confines I experienced just 20 years ago.

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