Monday, November 26, 2007

On trivia!

All of those horribly wasted brain cells. Trivia has always seemed to be the "fat" of the brain's knowledge, all those things that are seemingly unnecessary. As Doyle so elegantly states in A Study in Scarlet:
His[Sherlock Holmes's] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Trivia as defined in the dictionary, means "something of small importance". I will wax trivial then and tell you the entomology of the word trivia. Trivia comes from the Latin trivium meaning "three roads". What the heck does that have to do with anything? Well, in medieval lore, there were seven "roads" to the liberal arts. These seven roads were called the septrivium (or "seven roads"). The seven roads were divided into 2 sections: the high roads of the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music), and the low roads of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). The trivium were considered to be the lesser of the liberal arts and the use of the term stretched towards any fact that was considered unimportant.

When one looks at the quadrivium and sees that two of these arts have been absorbed into math, one is really physics, and the last is really a fine art and not a liberal one, the quadrivium really has no place in modern thinking. But, it is interesting to note the comparison of the natural liberal arts to that of the "man-made" liberal arts, and the relative importance placed on each. Also, logic is also absorbed into math, grammar is really an offshoot of language study that Noam Chomsky has also placed into math and is actually used in computer science, and that rhetoric is really an offshoot of psychology, so the "man-made" trivium is not really liberal arts either.

This all brings me to my point. I see so many of these studies being scientifically analyzed that our concept of "liberal arts" is really becoming the fringe divider between the scientifically quantifiable and the humanly expressible. So, where is the trivia? When I go to trivia on Tuesday nights at Tigin, they ask us questions that range mostly on points of knowledge, facial recognition, and current events. Literally, trivia has changed from the "ability to reason" which is present in grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and permuted into how many 0-dimensional facts that one knows.

All of these can and should be stored on the internet! I would claim that one of the quintessential tasks of the internet is the storage of extreme amounts of minutiae. So what happens when we find a way to link the internet to our minds to look something up at a moment's notice? No more trivia. It's already happening: Tigin puts on strict limits on the usage of cell-phones, laptops, or PDAs. This is because any of these are just appendages that limit the usage of the internet to "cheat" at the trivia competition.

But now is the time to come back to Doyle's passage. He's really and truly onto something: why store any of this useless knowledge in our brains when we should be storing it somewhere as a reference where it can be verified, compactly indexed, and quickly retrievable? Holmes is exactly correct; there is absolutely no reason he needs to know about astrophysics to solve crimes (unless his crimes occur on the moon or on Mars). And if Holmes needed to solve a stellar case, he could just look it up, know it for that case's time period, and then discard it.

Computers do the same thing: this is how cache works. They have a much faster memory on the CPU that they hit again and again when a piece of code is being repeated in a loop, or if a section of memory is being worked upon iteratively. It stores the hit from a previous lookup of something in slower memory (or worse, disk or flash memory) and works upon that, storing the real value on a different cycle later when it's no longer important. To a computer, the memory is filled with trivia, and the disk drive and internet are filled with obscurity. The only part that is truly important is what's currently on the computer's mind, which is in the registers and cache.

I now ponder what that elimination of trivia as a cultural activity will end up doing to society at large. It's an important and ultimately paradigm-changing consideration. People look up places on GPS; they no longer depend on the knowledge of maps, landmarks, and the like. These landmarks were important, but now they are trivia. Almost any programmer 10 years ago could recite you the powers of 2 up to 2^32: now it's not really that important to their tasks, and it falls back to trivia. Is it really that important to mathematicians today that pi is really really close to 22/7? How important is that estimation to carpenters and plumbers? Will the art of estimation be lost when we all have cranial implants that have calculation as a base function? In any event, the art of the bar-born trivia quiz will soon become a faded memory, as more and more people are able to just look up the answers without even blinking their eyes. I don't know what it all means yet, but it is definitely changing the landscape of knowledge, similar to the change in universities when the septrivium was eliminated.

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