On Being Willing To Learn…For Fun

I run Jeopardy games at PAX whenever I can. These are custom-built game shows in every sense of the word — handmade buzzers, bespoke software, and custom-created questions by and for the PAX attendees. It’s trivia, so it’s not all going to be stuff that you know immediately — but my question team and I take great pains trying to create content that geeks in attendance might be able to recall with a little hint or some mental effort.

This year at PAX Prime, after one of the questions went unanswered, a contestant (who passed an entrance exam before they were selected) complained, “But I wasn’t alive then!” 

It was all I could do not to lose my shit.

Jump forward a few months. I create puzzles fairly often at work, and recently made one based on American money — an alternative math problem involving the rank of the US Presidents in relation to their appearance on currency denominations. It was supposed to be tricky, and it was in an environment that several dozen people at the minimum would solve collaboratively with Google at their disposal. This was criticized by multiple people as ethnocentric —  “How are we supposed to know who’s on your money? We don’t live there.”

Once again, it was all I could do not to lose my shit.

The reason I am actively attempting to retain my fecal matter is that these are both examples of a self-centered attitude that infuriates me, and something I fear is a cultural shift: The idea that if knowledge is not something that does not already have a personal investment or personal experience, then it is of no value.  What you know, you know because you know it, and there’s no need to concern yourself with anything else.

Imagine the field of anthropology in a world where people were uninterested in what happened outside of their zip code. Imagine astronomy as researched by people who ignored other planets because, well, they had only lived on Earth. Imagine history only going back as far as your own lifetime, where humans had no awareness of anything that came before their oldest citizen. Imagine life in a bubble of your own existence.

We truly live in the Information Age (and I am convinced that when the second Ice Age inevitably arrives, this is what modern society will be retroactively be called). The Internet has become the standard repository for human knowledge, without borders — a simple Bing search can turn up information from Indonesia, culture about Calcutta, facts in Farsi. Puzzle solvers — particularly those working on collaborative puzzles that benefit from parallel human processing — have never had an easier method of research.  There is no longer any restriction on what you know or how you know it (unless you live in China). The  only barrier to this enlightenment is a personal defense mechanism of”I want to remain just as fucking stupid as I am right now” — and somehow, that’s supposed to be okay.

What’s lacking, then, is not knowledge — it’s curiosity. It’s a willingnessif not an outright desire, to look for information that you do not already possess. It’s the realization that trivia, by its nature, is probably shit you don’t already know unless you’ve looked for more data than you would normally digest. It’s the understanding that all information has an origin, and you should be ready to research that origin if you want a deeper understanding of the information. — particularly if the information itself is being presented as a challenge.

As my parents used to say whenever I would ask them questions: If you don’t know something, look it up. You cannot function in modern society unless you become informationally self-sufficient — and this goes triple if you choose leisure activities that inherently require the acquisition of esoteric knowledge. Do not expect the rest of the world to wear your blinders when you are opting into activities that demand your willingness to learn. Don’t wander into a World Cup match and then whine, “Well, I don’t know how to play! How am I supposed to win?” This is not a game about you. It’s simply not your game at all, so get the fuck off the pitch.

My advice: Be smart enough to acknowledge you don’t know everything, then be smart enough to know how to learn more. And if you aren’t smart enough for either of those, at least be smart enough to know that you shouldn’t be opting into activities you aren’t equipped to handle.

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