Friday, March 09, 2007

Too much stuff to remember

The dumbing down of America? I blame it all on the stuff we have to remember these days. How can we think clearly when we have so much to remember?

When I was younger and supposedly quicker of thought and stronger of memory, I didn't have to keep track of as many things as I do now, when I'm slower and dumber, and that doesn't seem quite fair. There weren't as many kinds of cars then, or professional ball teams, and there was only one computer -- a big machine named Univac that as far as I was concerned existed only in the pages of the Weekly Reader at school.

I've tried to keep track of the many kinds of automobiles on the road, but lost that battle long ago. Today's cars all look like multi-colored Chiclets to me, and they have even stranger names than Bel-Air or Fury. As a semi-skilled but regular New York Times crossword puzzler, my biggest fear has been that the puzzle's creators will start slipping in names of new models of cars. Well, they've started. What the heck is an Acero, anyway?

In my prime (somewhere around the age of 12, I think), most major league baseball teams were located east of the Mississippi, with the exception of two expatriate teams in California. Ergo, fewer players to follow in the sports pages. And never did their exploits on or off the field end up elsewhere in the newspaper with the exception of those who married actresses. Now the players and teams are all over the place, seasons running into each other, a frenzied polyglot of sports drinks, shoes, courtroom trials and meaningless statistics.

The proliferation of numbers and letters crucial to our daily lives is perhaps the cruelest modern trick on the memory impaired. It doesn't seem so long ago that I had to know only my telephone number and the alphabet. Now I have to remember numbers and letters of cell phones, pagers, ATM codes, security codes, computer passwords and television channels (of which there were only three back then, if I remember correctly, which is doubtful). Would Albert Einstein have been able to think up the Theory of Relativity if he had all those numbers crowding into his brain at the same time? I think not. He would have had to settle for the Guess of Relativity.

Computers? Wonderful things, but I find it ironic that a technology that has so revolutionized the way we conduct our business, with its ensuing complications, is based on the simplicity of the numbers one and zero. I can remember one and zero. Why do I have to know RAM and ROM and gigabytes and megahertz? Or is it megabytes and gigahertz. See what I mean?

The names of many countries and cities have changed over the years, further crowding the memory bank. Somewhere along the line Burma became Myanmar and the Chinese insisted we call all their cities something impossible to pronounce, much less spell. Perhaps they were tired of the "peeking duck" jokes. Not to be outdone, China's arch rival the Soviet Union decided to call it quits solely in order to foist on the world an even more confusing collection of countries whose only apparent similarity is that their names end in -stan.

National parks? I used to know all their names and where they were. Now the neighbor's probably got one in his backyard. We keep getting new presidents, who are hard enough to keep in order, but now they're starting to have the same names as old ones.

It's my theory (sorry, I mean my guess) that it was a proliferation of numbers, details and hype-generated factoids that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire. In their heyday, the Romans had only a few chariot makes to keep track of, and sports fans gathered in the Coliseum to watch the exploits of but a handful of gladiator teams.

Then General Chariot Co. came out with its new, souped-up Jupiter model to escalate the competition with its rivals, and things began to get complicated. The Professional Gladiator's League expanded to 32 franchises and created the Colossus of Rhodes Bowl in order to advertise all the new chariot models and the latest fashions in sports sandals, togas and snacks. Finally, Julius Caesar conquered a bunch of new countries and changed all their names. Ultimately, with people having to remember so many things, Rome got sacked.

See what can happen?

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