The Internet hasn’t made us any smarter
Feb. 1, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

Classic television may not immediately make one think about technology, but watching part of an episode of “Gunsmoke” recently reminded me of how much things have changed.

I often keep my laptop handy when I have the television on, because this allows me (in theory) to make better use of my time.

I can be writing, checking e-mail, or doing research while the TV is on.

Most programs require about 2 percent of my attention, and commercials require none at all.

While I was watching the above referenced episode of “Gunsmoke,” it occurred to me that one of the female characters looked very familiar, but I could not place her.

It started to bug me, the way these things tend to do, so I Googled the episode in question (“A Town in Chains”) to see who she was.

The first thing that surprised me was the fact that there were more than two dozen sites that provided all the information one could ever want about this program.

Bear in mind, this episode first aired in 1974. That is 35 years ago, and I find it amazing that so much detail is readily available.

I learned that the name of the actress playing the role of Arlene was Gretchen Corbett.

This still did not mean anything to me.

I clicked on her name in the cast list to bring up her biography and filmography.

The fact that she was born on Aug. 13, 1947 in Camp Sherman, OR, or the knowledge that she matriculated at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech, did not shed any light on why her face was familiar.

However, when I started reading the list of movies and television programs in which she has appeared, the reason became obvious.

She was apparently very busy in television through the 1970s and 1980s.

There was a very impressive list of shows, episodes and original air dates provided, in which she had performed.

She appeared in popular shows such as “Kojak,” “Ironside,” “Columbo,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Marcus Welby, MD,” “Family,” “Cheers,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Magnum, P.I.,” and a long list of others, including a long stint on “The Rockford Files” in the role of attorney Beth Davenport.

It is no wonder her face was familiar. It appears to have been impossible to turn on any television crime drama for about two decades without seeing her mug.

I discovered a plethora of details about these shows that have been off the air for ages. Many also included photos and a chance to watch specific episodes.

This brings us to the nub of the technology question.

What did we do before the Internet?

I seem to recall that I spent a lot of time in libraries in the days before the Internet took over our lives.

I remember looking things up in large volumes called encyclopedias. If I wanted more information, I had to check out books about a subject.

In order to do this, I first had to consult a card catalog.

This all seems so quaint and old-fashioned now, but not so long ago, it was one of the only ways to look things up.

Today, with just a few clicks on a keyboard (or a touch-screen), I can learn about nearly any subject that one might care to name.

When I think back on all the reports we had to write for school, I am convinced that I could have done them standing on my head had I had access to the Internet and a printer.

Sometimes, I look things up just to see what I will find, and it is almost frightening to see the amount of information that we have at our fingertips.

Apart from looking up important things, like the name of an actress whose face is familiar, we can access things like medical advice, recipes, movie reviews, golf course information, news reports, and weather forecasts.

We can do serious research without having to lug around encyclopedias or other heavy volumes.

At the time the episode of “Gunsmoke” that I just watched was originally televised, we had three networks, and I would have had to get up out of my chair to change channels.

If I wanted to know who an actor or actress was, I would have had to ask someone who happened to have watched the same show, or consulted the TV schedule, which may have been listed in the newspaper or printed as a separate magazine.

The sad part is that, despite all the information that is so readily available to us these days, people don’t seem any smarter or well-informed.

In fact, I have to wonder if people are less well-informed now than they were before the Internet age.

Things that we used to consider common knowledge don’t seem that common anymore.

One wonders if this is because we have reached the limit of the amount of data our brains can absorb.

Perhaps it is because it is so easy to look things up now, that we simply don’t bother to remember anything, on the grounds that if we need to know something we can just look it up on our laptops or phones.

We seem to be using our electronic devices as external hard drives for our brains, and not storing the kind of data we once did.

As much as I love living in the digital age, there are times when I just need to watch an old TV show to put things in perspective. There are even days when I miss that old card catalog.