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Below the Beltway

The other day, my family and I hauled out a 20-year-old version of the game "Trivial Pursuit." We played for two hours, but it was a joyless plod, like trying to jog through marmalade. Those questions that were not ludicrously out of date ("Which is larger in area, East Germany or West Germany?") seemed somehow pointless. It took me a while to realize why: Armed with an iPhone, any dull-witted middle-schooler could have run the table against all of us in five minutes.

This is where we are, as a society: Knowledge is garbage.

Information isn't garbage, but being knowledgeable is severely devalued. It is nothing to aspire to or to take any particular pride in. The era of the know-it-all is over.

Because I am so knowledgeable, I know exactly what you are thinking. You are thinking: "Good! This is a long-overdue comeuppance for the smug! At last, we have marginalized the sort of insufferable twit who sprinkles his SAT scores into casual conversation."

As someone with a 1468 out of 1600, including a 744 in math, I am deeply offended by your attitude.

To commiserate, and to test the hypothesis, I phoned my friend Peter Sagal. Peter is a professional know-it-all. As the host of National Public Radio's humor-quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!" he earns his living by grilling his guests about current events and esoteric knowledge. I asked Peter what his own strongest subject was and, after the obligatory modest demurrals, he said, confidently, "American plays from the 1970s and 1980s."

So he became the know-it-all, and I became the grade-schooler at a computer. At the same time I asked him the questions, I asked Google.

Me: What is the name of either character in " 'Night, Mother," Marsha Norman's 1983 two-woman play about suicide?

Peter: Whoa. OK, let's see.

Google: Jessie and Thelma.

Peter: It definitely won the Pulitzer Prize.

Google: Jessie and Thelma.

Peter: and I want to say Kathy Bates played the daughter on Broadway.

Google: Jessie and Thelma.

Me: Apparently, it was Jessie and Thelma.

Peter: Man. I think I might have eventually remembered Jessie. Thelma, never.

Me: Yeah, that's because Thelma's name was never mentioned onstage. She was just "Mama." According to Google.

Peter: Oh.

Peter knew that the 1970s anti-war play "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," was written by David Rabe, and he knew it as fast as Google did. But although he guessed that Al Pacino played Hummel in the Broadway debut, he wasn't sure. (Google was.)

Me: What was the name of the narrator in "The Fantasticks?"

Peter: Uh, it was

Google: El Gallo.

Peter: It was a Spanish name.

Google: El Gallo.

Peter: I saw it in New York at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, and I actually met the guys who wrote it! I can't remember their names.

Google: Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Peter: I want to say Harvey something.

In the end, Peter and I were feeling pretty discouraged, which was when I mentioned my SAT scores. "I remember mine, too," he said. "I definitely had a 780 in verbal. I missed one question, the meaning of the word 'palliate.' I think I got 1510 total, or 1520."

I noted that the tests were harder when I took them than when he did, and my 1468 was probably at least equal to his score.

"This is the most pathetic conversation I've had in a long time," he said.

As usual, he was right. He knows a lot.

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