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With the Internet at our fingertips, do we still need to know things?

October 10, 2016 |

“The average American is shockingly ignorant about almost everything,” claims William Poundstone. More people knowcloud who Khloe Kardashian is than who Rene Descartes was. Most can’t find Delaware on a map, correctly spell the word occurrence, or name the largest ocean on the planet. But does it matter? Do we need to fill our heads with facts when almost anything we want to know is at our fingertips in seconds of searching online?

William Poundstone explores how knowledge relates to the quality of our lives in matters of health, wealth, politics and happiness. In an engaging, often humorous style,  Head in the Cloud identifies the types of knowledge that still matter (and, perhaps, those that don’t). Can a person be culturally illiterate and still know how to evaluate the messages they hear on the news, read online or see on Facebook? Can a person with no point of reference know when they are offered a good deal and when they getting conned?

Poundstone is the author of many earlier books, including Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? (on the trick questions and insanely difficult puzzles employers sometimes use as part of the interview process) and Rock Breaks Scissors (on outsmarting nearly everybody). He argues that while much of the knowledge we now consider trivia is not necessary for survival, it is a good predictor of who will be successful by a variety of standards in our current world. In the chapter “Putting a Price Tag on Facts,” people of similar ages, backgrounds and education were given a relatively basic trivia quiz. People who aced the quiz also earned over twice the income of people who did poorly. While we all know money cannot buy happiness, Poundstone demonstrates that factual knowledge is closely related to our well-being. Even winning the lottery is not all that lucky if we do not have the knowledge and skills to manage the money.