Despite Guinness And Google, Some Barroom Questions Go Unanswered

Feb 17, 2014
Originally published on February 17, 2014 6:59 pm
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The wealth of information that the Internet puts at our fingertips changes the way we interact with one another. If something is in dispute, a smartphone can quickly clear things up. And commentator Andrei Codrescu says there may be fewer barroom brawls over factual matters, but there are certain questions a search engine won't ever be able to answer.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: In Russia, one man stabs another after quarreling about whether poetry was better than prose. The poetry lover stabbed the prose partisan. This kind of violence is on the rise about all the questions Google can't answer. The number of murders in Ireland went down for a time after 1951 when Sir Hugh Beaver founded the Guinness Book of World Records.

Drunks in pubs quit stabbing each other for a time when quarrels could be settled by the authority of the Guinness Book. No one had to die over an argument about which was the fastest bird in Europe, the golden plover or the grouse. Sir Hugh had the direct interest in keeping pubs peaceful because he was the manager of Guinness Breweries.

Many eons have passed between 1951 and 2014. Google can answer many more questions than the Guinness Book, questions so obscure, few drunks have ever heard of them. Few people have been stabbed because of defined structure constants in physics, which is one over one thirty-seven point zero three five nine nine nine, although this number is highly disputed and hotly contested at least since 1937.

Still, Google stands ready to answer oodles of questions and if Google can't, people all over the planet will chime in from the always awake Internet. If an argument breaks out over the Internet, there is no way to stab an adversary. For one, the opponents are physically too far and for another, pros and cons are held by armies of inter-nauts.

Even in a pub, almost everyone has a smartphone these days and if things get heated, they can draw it out faster than a knife or the battered old Guinness Book behind the bar. For all that, there are questions neither Sir Hugh nor Mr. Google can answer. Is poetry better than prose? What happens when you die? Is energy eternal delight? What are ideas? What are words? What are people? Where did I put my glasses?

These and other questions like them are on the increase. They will be fought over and there will be new violence in the pubs and wherever people are still close enough to each other to harm the flesh. The more answers seem to be handy, the more unanswerable questions arise. Socrates, the ancient Greek preacher, kept asking questions from his listeners who thought they could only stop him if he died. He obliged by killing himself, but the questions kept going on and on.

CORNISH: Andrei Codrescu is author of "Post Human Data Guide" and of "The Poetry Lesson." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.