I am old enough to recall a time when the gold standard for the accumulated knowledge of humanity was the Encyclopedia Britannica. When Susie and I were married in the summer of 1987, one of the many things she brought to our new household was a complete set of the Britannica. For twenty-one years, it sat on the built-in shelves of our family room, flanking the television set, and from time to time I would pull a volume down to consult it on some bit of arcana.
In 2008, when I retired and we sold the house in order to move to Chapel Hill, we decided that the Britannica would have to go, so I took the many volumes, along with some other books, to the Amherst Town Dump, where there was a shed set aside for unwanted books. But the overlord of the shack would not accept them. He said there was no demand for them. I was reduced to driving about town with the entire set in the trunk of my car, surreptitiously dumping a volume at a time in public trash cans.
This morning, a question occurred to me. How much money, I wondered, is paid to the actress who plays Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady, in the humorous ads that have proliferated on television. This is a fact so obscure and unimportant that it could never have made it into one of the magisterial articles commissioned for the Britannica, or even for one of the lesser encyclopedias that competed with it, albeit never successfully.
So I went to my computer and asked Google. Before I had finished typing in the question, three versions of it popped up as Google suggestions, a sure sign that I was by no means the first person to whom the question had occurred. It turns out that Stephanie Courtney, the professional actress and comedian who plays Flo, is paid $500,000 a year for the gig. I have to say that I think she is worth it. After the Geico gecko, she is my favorite pitchperson, and the gecko, of course, being animated, doesn't earn a nickel.
How on earth can I ever explain to my grandson and granddaughter that there was a time when one did not have every conceivable fact at one's fingertips [or thumb tips if one is texting]?