Before the Internet, there was the Roomnet

While working in a remote location, we learned to gather information the old-fashioned way.

Gracia Lam

Earlier this year, an archaeological dig took me to a rural part of the world with spotty Internet service. In this village, it came through cell towers, but the signal was weak and shared by hundreds of people. So functionally, I lived without the Internet.

Researchers have written about how video games and the Internet have changed our brains. My time on the dig required a reboot of my pre-Internet brain. This earlier brain, I quickly realized, was not without resources: Lacking digital search engines, I still had the “Roomnet.” Just as the Internet is the collective intelligence (or lack thereof) of a few billion people, the Roomnet is the collective intelligence of everyone in a given room.

One day, the dig director wanted to determine how tall an eroded pyramid originally stood. The first step was to determine the angle of the pyramid using a faced block of stone. We could measure the height and depth of the angle and so. . . My individual brain stalled out.


“We can use trigonometry,” the director said. This was a room full of academics who knew a lot about ancient history, archaeological imaging techniques, modern Arabic, and ’80s pop music (my contribution!), among other things, and we cobbled together a formula.

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“Once we determine the value of arctangent, the result will be in radians.’’

“But how will we convert radians into degrees without Google?”

“Try Excel.”

As it turns out, Microsoft Excel can convert radians into degrees without an Internet connection. Who knew? The Roomnet!


Eventually, I began to appreciate the cobbled bits of knowledge among the half-dozen assembled crew. Without the Internet, we began having . . . conversations. We began to figure things out together, a neuron in one person’s head firing and setting off a spark in someone else’s.

One day, the dig director mentioned he liked a movie starring the guy from The Office. We all worked to figure out which film he meant.

You mean Steve Carrell?  . . .  Yes, that guy  . . .  You mean The Way Way Back? . . . What’s that? . . . A movie about a kid spending the summer at a beach . . . Nope. Not that one. In this one, he was married to that redheaded actress . . . Julianne Moore? . . . Yes, her! And they had a daughter . . .  Oh! Emma Stone. And she was going out with Ryan Gosling? . . . What was the name of that movie? . . . Crazy Love? . . . Something like that . . . Crazy Sexy Love? . . . I think that’s an album by TLC . . . Crazy, Stupid, Love. . . . Crazy, Stupid, Love. That’s it!

A silly exchange, but I got so much pleasure out of it, as if we were playing a quiz game together. This, I thought, was how we used to talk.

The Roomnet is constantly in flux and manipulated. There are people you invite to dinner because you know they have great stories. Others you want to work with because they have expertise that you lack. Marriages function this way: My wife is more social, clever, and kind than I am, but I trump her in ’80s pop music trivia.


When I got home — and to the World Wide Web — there was comfort in having all that knowledge at my fingertips. But I have to admit, the Roomnet is both more fun and more memorable. I spend hours on Web pages skimming information that never quite lodges in my brain, but because of the Roomnet, decades after high school, I remember that arctangent is opposite over adjacent. (I’m still not sure exactly what that means, but I bet I can find someone around here to tell me.)

Jack Cheng writes in Waban and on Twitter @jakcheng. Send comments to

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Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect math formula.