The week of July 5, 2015

Ken Jennings still believes in the power of trivia

By Jesse Hicks

Just over a decade ago, Ken Jennings went from being a Utah software engineer to making Jeopardy! history, dominating the quizfest for a record-setting 74 straight games. He returned to the show in 2011 as a challenger to IBM’s Watson computer (which handily defeated both its human opponents). Since then he’s become an ambassador from trivia land, and penned a number of books, including Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, and a series of Junior Genius Guides for children. He talked to us about what it was like to have a supercomputer render his vocation obsolete, the unique culture of quiz nerds, and how trivia knowledge can make you a better thinker.

In Braniac you talk about the history of trivia and how in some ways it’s been with us for a long time, though it’s changed forms. So I’m curious as to what role you think trivia plays in an age when all the answers are as close as the nearest smartphone.

I think about that a lot. It would certainly be a death knell for trivia if we ever started thinking of our nearest Googling device as part of our brain. Which increasingly happens—you’re in conversation and someone won’t be able to remember the name of an actor or the bassist in that band, and my first impulse is to pull out my cellphone. It’s almost like that’s part of the remembering process now.

The thing that makes trivia games succeed is the little thrill of pulling out the answer, of having something in your memory actually pay off—which is disappointingly rare [laughs]. And that thrill is not duplicated if you use Siri or Google or Watson. So I think for the same reason we still watch Usain Bolt run a 100-meter dash even though we know our Toyota Camry can go faster, we’ll still think trivia is fun for many generations. Until the chips actually go into our brain. Then it’s pretty much lights-out for trivia.

“I think for most of us that’s a pretty good stand-in for living a richer, more interesting life—having a brain that’s good at picking out the little tidbits that interest us.”

You do this weekly news quiz for Slate. We seem to live at a time when we’re seemingly surrounded by information, and there are always people offering to explain it to us, or give us the five things we need to know. So I wonder how having knowledge in our brains relates to our filtering all this information and deciding what’s important—and who can tell us what’s important.

Filtering goes on mostly below the surface. Our brains are actually really good at deciding ‘I’m interested in this, I’m not interested in that.’ Maybe that’s not the same as ‘this is important, that’s not.’ We’re not so good at filtering by, you know, ‘this will make me a better decision maker,’ or ‘this will increase my income potential.’ But we’re really good at filtering by what interests us. I think for most of us that’s a pretty good stand-in for living a richer, more interesting life—having a brain that’s good at picking out the little tidbits that interest us. Like a kid picking out the little marshmallows in the Lucky Charms.

That whole culture of needing bullet points and the five things you must know about x: That’s often used as a sign of the dumbing down of America, but I think that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think in the past people would just be shamefully ignorant about everything. That’s not well understood today: We actually needed these remedial explainers back then, too; we just didn’t have them. People just understood a much smaller sector of their world.

Now it’s available to everyone. I think that kind of information explosion is an almost universal good.

In your book you describe your college buddy, who carpooled with you to the Jeopardy! audition, as someone who “only later in life realized how many people mistook trivial recall for intelligence.” How do we decide the line between trivia recall, or the five things we think we need to know about this topic, and being genuinely informed?

I feel like there are more crucial kinds of intelligence than having all the state birds in your head. Emotional intelligence is better; creativity is better; collaborative skills are probably better. But I think the overlap is pretty substantial for just actually having a head stuffed with facts—the kinds of life skills that can come from that. It makes you better at making decisions. It makes you better at learning new things and new skills because you’ve got stuff to attach it to.

“All our words for someone who knows a lot of stuff—‘know-it-all,’ ‘smartypants’—they’re all insults.”

We call it “trivia”—we use a word for “unimportant”—and all our words for someone who knows a lot of stuff—”know-it-all,” “smartypants”—they’re all insults. They’re completely unveiled insults for the terrible crime of knowing a bunch of stuff. But I have to think those people are more informed voters; they’re better at their jobs; they’re more interesting conversationalists. I think trivia recall can be a pretty good stand-in for general intelligence… if you don’t become one of these people who’s a dick about it.

You’ve used a metaphor of a net: If you start weaving your net of understanding more finely by trying to understand more things and make more connections, it becomes much easier for new information to be caught in that net and find its place in it.

I’m a pretty big believer in that, and I think many people discriminate too much. They have certain small areas in which they’re obsessively interested and then vast swaths of universe they have no reference point in. You’re never going to learn anything about opera or hockey or whatever the new thing is if you have nothing to connect it to. It has to start with that surface-level, trivia-level information. That’s the mesh that the new information gets stuck in.

Back to this point about not being a dick about it: In Braniac you mention that a lot of the quiz nerds you know are actually quite extroverted but in a kind of repressed way. I wonder if you could say something about that kind of nerd, who’s really invested in mastery, or in demonstrating mastery.

I find it off-putting, and it’s a really personal thing for me, because I tend to be self-deprecating to a fault, mostly as a defense mechanism, going back to my time as a know-it-all kid. You learn very quickly it’s not a hit with girls to know Captain James [Tiberius] Kirk’s middle name. You learn to go into the closet. So to this day I have a very deep suspicion of people who seem determined to wow you with their depth of knowledge. Because it’s just such an easy trap to avoid, I think.

“I think many people discriminate too much. They have certain small areas in which they’re obsessively interested and then vast swaths of universe they have no reference point in.”

It’s very clear to me, the difference between someone who’s actually being helpful in telling you, “No, you’re thinking of Benjamin Harrison—William Henry Harrison was his grandfather.” Versus someone who’s just looking for any way to drag the conversation back to something he or she heard on NPR yesterday.

It comes from insecurity, I guess, like anywhere else. Trivia people are like anybody else; this is their way of demonstrating control or mastery over the world. I guess I just personally find it distasteful, you know? [laughs] Which is totally ironic: “Jeopardy! guy hates trivia braggarts,” but it’s a type I have a hard time with.

It struck me because we’ve recently had these discussions about some of the more toxic aspects of a very small subset of what you might call “nerd culture.” With Gamergate, for one; Arthur Chu also wrote an essay diagnosing a kind of nerd rage or nerd entitlement. So I wondered if that kind of repressed extroversion is an issue not just in trivia nerd culture, but nerd culture more generally.

There’s probably some root cause: “I finally have my domain where I’m a little expert; I’m certainly not going to share it with women, or whatever minority I have an issue with, or gays.” There probably is some root cause there. It’s the same impulse to be the king—”I’ve worked very hard to get this good at video  games, or know this much about Star Trek,” or whatever it is.

That said, I’ve found trivia culture to be pretty benign as far as the more toxic elements go. You go on Jeopardy! and everybody’s unfailingly congenial even though their job is to try to kick your butt at a trivia game in a few hours. People enjoy hanging out. The jokes are a little nerdy, but it all seems pretty harmless, actually, and it’s a fairly open community as well. Quiz bowl culture in particular has some issues with women, and they look like the Gamergate issues. I feel like the more extreme you get into any culture, you’re going to get that kind of toxicity.

In general, though, it seems like trivia culture is pretty benign. Maybe because they’re the utopians, the Star Trek people, the Google people, who think more knowledge is better, and the Enlightenment is what’s going to save the world, and that if we all understood each other a little better, we’d get along better. It’s fundamentally a utopian urge, to know a lot about the world, and know a lot about the person you’re talking to.

“It’s fundamentally a utopian urge, to know a lot about the world, and know a lot about the person you’re talking to.”

Tell me a little bit about what you were thinking while playing Jeopardy! against Watson, IBM’s big-data computer.

It was so exciting, just the idea of it: This is a machine that can play Jeopardy! It was also incredibly frustrating at the time. I really understood how people felt playing against me. You couldn’t beat it on speed when it buzzed in with its amazing electronic reflexes; it only did so when it was sure of the answer, so it seemed unbeatable. It was a really frustrating experience—and also sort of this existentially challenging one: After I lost, to realize that wow, I had one skill that made me a special little snowflake, and all it took was IBM throwing a few hundred million dollars at the problem and enough servers running in parallel. I can be duplicated in silicon: That was a yawning chasm of doubt in my life.

But at the same time, after that happened, people didn’t stop playing Jeopardy! We didn’t stop playing chess after supercomputers beat our grandmasters.

Right, it turns out the challenge was not to see how many questions someone can answer correctly. It turns out we were in it for the fun of it. The vicarious thrill of pulling something out of your brain that was helpful, and the horse-race element of it. So I don’t think that’s going to kill knowledge games. I’m a little bit afraid it’s going to contribute to this trend of outsourcing our ability to recall facts to our devices, which in general I don’t think is good for our culture.

What’s going to happen with other skills? I’m not as good at mental math anymore because we have calculators; I don’t recall my friends’ phone numbers anymore because I can do that with a single button on my phone. I do wonder if just in education and in real life, at any time I can look up the answer to any question, so we don’t have to teach people answers to questions anymore. We can teach them skills and let them figure out facts and culture for themselves. I’m a little bit skeptical about that, actually. I feel like the decisions we make in life today require the synthesis of so many facts to make the right choice about, you know, who to vote for, what college to go to. The sheer number of things you have to know to make the right decision mean that nobody’s going to sit and look those things up one at a time, in series. So there has to be some foundation of good, solid facts and cultural reference points in your head.

“The Internet has sort of turned us all into pedantic hair splitters.”

When it looked like we might be sending troops to the Ukraine a couple months ago, somebody put up a website to see if Americans actually knew where the Ukraine was. And they didn’t. Worse, the sense of certainty on this issue correlated with bad knowledge about where the country was. And I think Department of Defense IP addresses were no better than the rest of us at knowing where the Ukraine is. That was sort of shocking to me, that the people we’re trusting to make decisions about this don’t even have the first level of knowledge—like roughly where is this place? Middle East? Eastern Europe? In the Baltics? They didn’t know.

As a former college teacher, I used to have students claim the most important thing they could learn was where to find the answers to their questions. That seemed like a very denuded sense of what knowledge is, because it reduced knowledge to pure information retrieval.

Right. Surely there are more important things, like how you synthesize those facts when you have them. And I guess maybe the most important thing of them all, and it’s hard to impart—just a deep love in actually learning those things, so that you want to learn them. So it doesn’t seem like a task to go look something up. What a terrible world that is, if your idea of knowing something is a card catalog. That just seems wrong to me. You should be enthusiastic about knowing things you’re interested in.

You do these debunker columns for Woot. Why do you think those kind of columns are important?

I don’t think they’re important at all, actually. [laughs] I think it’s just some smart-alecky Internet culture where what you want to do is not just know the answer but feel like everyone else is wrong, you know? It doesn’t even matter if it’s in some hair-splitting, pedantic way. That’s fine. The Internet has sort of turned us all into pedantic hair splitters. Because it’s so easy to say, “Actually, no matter what 140-character generalization you’re making on Twitter, I would like to correct it.” Or, “Even if you’re making a joke, I would like to provide some irrelevant factual follow-up.”

So that’s sort of the impulse that led to the debunker column. I had a bunch of those books when I was a kid that would correct all this misinformation, telling you that Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador or whatever. I do sort of like the shock when something you thought your whole life was true turns out to be false. That’s a valuable thing, to question your assumptions.

Illustration by J. Longo