My husband, Paul, and I were driving down to Portland recently when a song we both like came on the radio. “Oh, who sang that?” Paul asked, as we listened to the melancholy folk tune, “Four Strong Winds.” He added, “They used to call that the unofficial Canadian national anthem.”

Now, I have an app on my iPhone called SoundHound that, when pointed at a music-playing device, identifies the music that is playing. I enjoy using this program, especially in front of people who have never seen it before. Yes, even tech-jaded teenagers are amazed.

I didn’t have to turn it on, however, because Paul’s own brain went into action, whirred through the Wayback Machine to the early 1960s (an image of Mr. Peabody used to be his Facebook avatar) and produced: “Ian and Sylvia!”

It’s nice to know at least some of us don’t have to rely solely on the Internet to answer “life’s persistent questions,” as Detective Guy Noir of “A Prairie Home Companion” likes to say.

In fact, I was able to point out that it sounded like Neil Young singing this version. I didn’t even check to see if I was right. How brave is that?

What did we do before we had access to the complete episode listings of “Gilligan’s Island”? I think we didn’t care, but I don’t really remember. It’s entirely possible that the urge to know everything, immediately, is a function of the ability to know everything, immediately.


I am an inveterate Googler. I love looking up all kinds of stuff. But I worry that technology dumbs us down, because it is so easy to look something up or to get apps to do the thinking for us. It must be a decade since I memorized someone else’s phone number. Speed dial is so convenient. I did, however, commit my own cellphone number to memory because I was embarrassed when I had to look it up in public.

There: spell-check just corrected “embarrassed” because I knew it would and I was too lazy to pay attention as I typed away merrily.

I can remember the phone number at my parents’ house, and even that of my Aunt Stella, who lived two towns away. She passed away more than five years ago. But my work number is a blur, because I’ve worked in three different locations in the Augusta School Department, and each number differs by one digit.

I finally smartened up and added it to my cellphone contact list, so I don’t have to be humiliated when a doctor’s office asks how to reach me.

I think I must have some sort of numerical processing problem, because if I am asked for my phone number, and then my zip code, I am likely to completely forget the latter. So I could consider shortcuts like speed dial an accommodation for my (admittedly rather mild) “disability.” Unfortunately, all I can picture in my head as I ponder these things are the blob people in the film “WALL-E,” who are practically permanently attached to their floating chairs. (Sigh. I just had to search the Internet to find the official term for those devices — it’s hoverchairs.

Is this our future with too much technology?


I suppose I just wouldn’t be able to make so many pop-culture references without the Internet. I remember what research was like in my youth, and I tell my students all about it when they come in for library orientation.

First, I had to make my way to the city from the suburbs, and climb the granite steps into the imposing building. Up a marble staircase to the reference room. Flip through the card catalog. Write down the Dewey Decimal numbers on slips of paper.

Hand the slips to the librarian. Watch as the librarian handed them to pages, who disappeared into the Victorian wrought-iron stacks to locate the books. Wait. Wait some more.

Finally receive three books, only one of which is going to be of any use. Repeat process.

I won’t even go into the painful procedures involved in using the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. It was a dastardly collection of green-bound volumes. You’d find the perfect article about the polio vaccine in the only issue of Time magazine missing from the library’s 50-year collection.

Now, it’s super easy for students to find the information they need. They can find way more than they need. And that’s why their challenge is to learn how to gather and interpret that data efficiently, skillfully and perceptively.


I challenge myself now and then in order to keep myself out of the hover-chair. This summer, while traveling with friends in the Berkshires, I couldn’t help but think of James Taylor’s classic song, “Sweet Baby James.” All I could remember, though, was the line “the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting.” I had my phone; I could have searched for the lyrics. Instead, I called upon my fellow baby boomers to help me out.

It was great fun, as everyone contributed a line: “Now the first of December was covered with snow/and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston/the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting/with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go…”

I sang it under my breath. Yes, that was it. I didn’t have to look it up — this time.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]

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