Over a long life, I have accumulated debts to many persons. To Willard Van Orman Quine, I owe an immutable grasp of the distinction between use and mention, which he hammered into my head in 1950 when I was a sixteen year old college freshman. To Benoit Roland, the great Franco-American achetier, I owe the magnificent viola bow that now, alas, sits unused in its case in my study. To Humphrey Bogart, I owe the immortal phrase, “We’ll always have Paris.” But to none do I owe so great a debt as I do to Sergei Brin, the co-founder of Google.
Brin is the savior of persons my age, those of us who suffer from what we delicately call “senior moments” so as not to have to confront the possibility of incipient dementia. Many times each day Brin guides me, whether it is to the actress whose name I have forgotten, to the capital of California, which has slipped my mind, or to the name of the man whose refusal to obey Richard Nixon led to the elevation of the egregious Robert Bork.
I was reminded yet again of this debt earlier today. Having taught my last Plato class, I turned my attention to preparations for the lecture I shall give three weeks from now in Belgium in commemoration of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth. My theme will be the deep explanation for the extraordinary language of the opening chapters of Capital, and this morning I began locating and marking the passages I wish to read out. Quite the most striking of these are the passages in which Marx compares ordinary marketplace commodity exchange to the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation, the focus of the ritual of the mass. I was quite sure Marx had drawn that comparison but I could not put my finger on the passage. Increasingly frustrated, I turned to Google. I entered “Karl Marx transubstantiation” and in less than twenty seconds I had the passages, right where I had left them, in Chapter Three, section 2.
Everyone knows a great many things that are not, at any given moment, being held in consciousness – one’s social security number, mailing address, cellphone number, the name of one’s last pet, the names of one’s children or parents. We know these things and can access that knowledge as needed, but we do not walk about repeating them aloud endlessly, rather like the Laputians of Gulliver’s third voyage. Since it takes me very little longer to find things on Google than to recall them to mind, I have often thought that I should consider everything on Google simply a part of my own mind. Looked at that way, I am quite impressively learned.