Hirst: Our information overload

Commentary

When I was 5, my parents let me watch television so that I would be familiar with the shows my peers were watching. When I was 14, I purchased my first cell phone. When I was 21, I first used a BlackBerry. And when I’m 50, I’ll probably elect to have a chip implanted so I can read my e-mail by just thinking about reading it.

Adults have long encouraged us to “read a newspaper beyond the sports section” or otherwise “know about the world.” And, like good members of a generation made up of what David Brooks termed “organization kid[s]” we listened. At any moment, you could ask one of us about Rasmussen polling data on the 2010 Republican primary, a bloggers latest tantrum or maneuvers within Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party and we’d have the answer — or be able to get it for you within minutes. Thanks to Google Reader, buzz feeds or even televisions left perpetually on — like the ones I saw at family dinner tables in Jamaica — we are made instantaneously aware of world events.

To some extent we have to be. I’ve long been skeptical of Tom Friedman’s theory of globalization because I think the world has always been globalizing and resisting globalization, from way back in antiquity when Alexander was conquering the known world through Marco Polo’s travels and onward. But there’s one part of his theory worth repeating: Today, knowledge moves faster than ever before and if you’re not connected, even with a $100 laptop and a dial-up Internet connection, you’ll be left behind both socially and economically

I saw this up close and personal this week. The column I had originally intended to publish was about American energy policy. I researched it earlier this month and wrote it on Sunday while watching the NCAA tournament. But the introduction and serious consideration of the Kerry-Graham-Liberman bill made my argument less relevant. I had to take some time out of writing my senior essay to write another column. On the upside, I had the feeling of writing an outdated and superfluous piece, which is to say I experienced what it’s like to publish in “Newsweek.”

It’s now clear that the world moves faster than we do, and it is hard to keep apace, but less clear is whether it’s worth it to try. The purpose of knowledge, as I see it, is to inform our actions. I learn a friend has no left hand so I can push him left during a pick-up game of basketball. I read Howard Jonas’ “On a Roll: From Hot Dog Buns to High-Tech Billions” to learn from a fellow entrepreneur. This semester, I am taking a playwriting course so I’ll be able to write a play. On the other hand, absorbing information the way many of us do is a passive activity.

When you are sitting in SSS 114 reading Matt Yglesias’ blog, how does his knowledge inform your actions? If the goal of reading his blog is to better understand democratic government, wouldn’t you be better off reading Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion”?

I’ll grant that knowing what’s up in the farthest places on earth influences the way we vote, our professional and investing choices, and gives us something to talk about. But constantly refreshing the “Huffington Post” web page has nothing to do with thinking critically about the news it spouts. Sitting at a laptop in Bass Library reading up-to-the-minute updates about scandal in the Catholic Church better prepares us for talking about getting work done in Bass than it does for talking intelligently about the Catholic Church.

Some of my friends who have the most insightful things to say about our world actively avoid reading the newspaper. To them, the news is jingling-jangling clutter of the mind. They go too far, but their skepticism is worth considering.

While we can’t escape our obligations to society, we must understand that the student who spends his days passively consuming daily events is less active in the world than Thoreau was at Walden Pond.

The scariest part, of course, is that acquiring information is so alluring. Put another way, it’s possible that Aldous Huxley, not George Orwell, was right. In Huxley’s dystopia, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy and maturity. People come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Huxley feared that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Huxley wrote that people have an infinite capacity for distraction. 1984 came and went but the possibility of a brave new world” remains.

Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.

Comments

  • Capital F

    Nice flourish at the end.

    I would only add (with apologies to Yeats): Things fall apart: The center cannot hold and the falcon has long since stopped even trying to listen for the Falconer, with a Capital F.

    PK