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How Little We Know: The Trip From Knowledge to 'Knowingness'

March 12, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — There probably isn't an American alive unfamiliar with the ritual: the blinking set, like a spaceship in one of those '50s sci-fi films; the "lifelines"; the portentous music and even more portentous "Is that your final answer?" "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--there is no question mark since the title is so rhetorical none is necessary--is not only the phenomenon of the moment; it is one of those communal experiences in American culture like "Seinfeld," "Titanic" and the Super Bowl.

Why a cheesy game show is commandeering the TV ratings is a matter of some head-scratching. Some attribute its success to the increasing decrepitation of traditional programming on the major networks. Others say it has the frisson of real life: ordinary people getting a chance at big money and allowing viewers a vicarious thrill. Still others say the archaism of the show is its appeal; it has the retro virtue of simplicity.

But "Millionaire" and the half-dozen imitators surfing its wake do something that may, at first blush, be less obvious. Though they look retro, they express a popular new attitude toward information and knowledge, one that challenges traditional respect for knowledge as a mark of achievement and a means of appropriating the world. Stripped to their essentials, these shows are about the power of useless information in a society overwhelmed by useless information. It isn't the person who is the smartest or most knowledgeable, in the usual sense of that word, who gets the prize. On "Millionaire," the winner is the person who knows the most trivia: the poet after whose daughter a computer language is named, the place where major-league baseballs are sewn, the planet on which Luke Skywalker lived. The less valuable the information, the better.

Even before you could get a cool million for it, information was a source of power in America. In this most pragmatic of countries, it was assumed that the more you knew, the more you knew how to do, and the more you knew how to do, the more easily you could manipulate your world. That is, information was important primarily because it was instrumental to some end. Still, for all the emphasis on pragmatism and the disdain for pure intellect, there was also a European carry-over that honored those who had managed to convert information into knowledge. Knowledge meant one had assimilated the accumulated wisdom of mankind and thus gained a deeper understanding of the world, whether this understanding had any practical consequences or not.

Though they could be pretty ridiculous, the old quiz shows respected the power of knowledge and honored the caste that held it. In the '40s, radio shows like "Quiz Kids" and "Information Please" were predicated on their panelists' intellectual prowess. Even the moderator, Clifton Fadiman, was an intellectual. Similarly, the superstar of the '50s quiz shows, Charles Van Doren of "Twenty-One," was an intellectual Brahmin: His father was the noted literary scholar Mark Van Doren, and Charles was an assistant professor at Columbia University. Van Doren became a star both because he seemed so smart (which turned out to be a fallacy, since the show was rigged and he had been given the answers) and because he carried the golden aura of the intellectual class, while the contestant he defeated, a rumpled Jewish autodidact named Herbert M. Stempel, didn't. Van Doren's eventual celebrity attested to a residual pride in education and intellectual breeding.

Yet, if those old quiz shows celebritized intellectuals, turning brains into stardom, they also democratized the acquisition of information by suggesting it was really just a matter of study. On "The $64,000 Question," the "Millionaire" of the '50s, contestants chose an area of expertise and then answered questions in it, giving the impression that they had mastered one branch of knowledge. That is why boy genius Robert Strom, whose chosen field was chemistry, captured the national imagination at the time. Strom was being rewarded for his precocity in having learned all those difficult equations, in effect, for his self-education.

The basic idea, and no doubt one appeal of the programs, was that anyone willing to devote the time to master information or hone his intelligence could win. It was a matter of brains and hard work--again, an educational process.

"Millionaire" conveys an entirely different message. With neither professional intellectuals nor common-man experts as contestants, it addresses the value of information itself. It is no accident that it has arisen in a society in which there is almost certainly more information available than at any time in history.

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