You With The Phone! Step Away From The Internet!

The never-ending list of things you don't actually need to know

In a recent conversation with a friend, we began talking about the issues confronting a sustainable world from a seminar she had recently attended. At one point in our discussion we touched on the the inherent problem with a democracy: people can be told what to think and still consider it to be their idea, thereby shaping the policy of a nation by those who control the information. The fact that we now have unprecedented access to a dizzying amount of data doesn’t actually help this; if anything, it makes us less able to decide for ourselves, but more likely to think we’re making informed choices. This then started me thinking deeper about the issues of this deluge of info, including why it was such a problem, and what might save us from death by information.

A few days ago, I posted an entry on my personal blog about the development of the US in thirty-year hops. I wrote it focusing on the cultural deficit in the United States that had grown exponentially since 1980, however it had an interesting secondary effect; in researching the few facts I threw in for comparison, I gained a renewed appreciation for the significant strides we have made technologically in such a short time span, and specifically the overwhelming pace at which personal technology had grabbed us by the collective throat and started stepping up our information consumption rate at a brain-melting pace.

At first we started processing information faster and faster; VisiCalc, the first microcomputer spreadsheet program released in 1979, took what used to be a week’s worth of number crunching by your average accountant and condensed it into a matter of hours. Business decisions could be made in a fraction of the time, and bottom lines became the new plaything of the Eighties. Over the course of the late Eighties and early Nineties, laptops and cell phones became increasingly commonplace, allowing people to create and share information anywhere they went, effectively collapsing the physical barriers tethering our ability to work with information. And then, in the mid-Nineties, came the Internet. Suddenly information could be transmitted, manipulated, and collaborated almost at will. For the fifteen years since, it has picked up speed and access has spread to the mobile phones and laptops that had set us free before, once again removing physical barriers from data consumption. In thirty short years, we have gone from active pursuers to passive consumers of information. We have given sight to a world of the data-blind.

Keeping with the analogy, we have however hit on the problem of sudden sight; as we open our eyes, we don’t know how to process what we’re seeing. As a previously under-developed part of our brain is suddenly bombarded with information, it quickly becomes overwhelming. As it happens, the past few days since I published my blog post, the New York Times has published a series of articles on the pitfalls of “wired life”, from concentration problems to parenting lapses. In the space of a single generation, we have created an entirely new way of consuming information, but have barely had time to develop the mental or technological mechanisms to use it effectively. For an example of these generational mental shifts, ask a baby boomer to find and install a particular app from the internet, and odds are they will struggle just to get started. Ask a “Gen X” or “Gen Y” person, even someone non-technical, they’ll likely be able to do it without much prompting. Ask your local 12-year-old, and it’s likely they’ve already done it, and know more about it than you do.

But still, even as the incoming generations are able to adapt to this mental shift, we are sacrificing our critical judgement of the information we’re given for the punditry of perceived experts as a coping mechanism. When we fail to be able to break down and judge information for ourselves, we must turn to someone to do it for us, and the increasing need to do so has made us almost wholly dependent on the media. We close our eyes again and listen to the comforting, familiar sounds of someone using their eyes for us. Unfortunately with everyone now able to see, there are far more people with agendas to tell us only what they want us to know about.

So how do we overcome this hurdle of technological evolution? How do we, as of today, as of right now, start improving our quality of consumption? We go on an information diet. We reduce our intake, and every now and again take a break to let the world be, have a look at it in person, and even read a book for fun (those paper things they keep on shelves that aren’t on a curriculum list).

Every so often I have to go through all the various accounts, mailing lists, and news feeds I’m part of and think, very critically, “Do I really need to be reading this?” Often there’s a tremendous amount of fluff that is simply chewing up my time and attention, and with an ever-widening net, the quality of what I consume gets on a steadily-declining slope. So I force myself to argue why I’m reading something at all.

Then Christmas before last I dropped off the grid completely for a week on a small island in Vanuatu. There was no TV, no phone, no cell reception, not even a newspaper; the island itself ran off a couple large diesel generators. After an initial data withdrawal anxiety attack, I dropped into data-less mode and had a great week learning to scuba dive. As soon as I was back home, I immediately jumped back into the info stream and was actually surprised when I found that, of everything that had gone unread, I really hadn’t missed anything. The world was still much the same as I had left it. In the meantime, I had still learned something that significantly broadened my horizons.

Ultimately we will need to develop both the tools and the neural wiring to be able to parse through this newfound sensory input, and to a certain degree we already are well on the way, but at the same time, we are increasingly sacrificing our critical interpretation, an invaluable tool. Stepping away from email, from news feeds, from instant messages, from text messages, from videos of cats being confused by boxes, and every now and again focusing on experiencing rather than consuming must be included and encouraged if we’re going to be anything other than a basic computer ourselves, taking the information fed to us and outputting the expected result.

2 Responses

  1. Well said. I have just spent the past 6 weeks on an information diet and have found that i like myself a lot better, i breath more, day dream more, think more, write more and read more when i am not sitting at the computer passively consuming other peoples thoughts. critical thinking is a skill that can be taught. I think that is the tool we much provide to the generations coming after us. I have often heard that you should only believe half of what you read and none of what you hear, however i think that needs to be changed to don’t believe anything unless you saw it for yourself IRL… or something 🙂

  2. The Internet is only exacerbating a problem that has existed for a long time. Too many people are willing to believe external sources without doing the background reading. While the catchcry for our generation may be “I read it on the Internet, it must be true!”, I know plenty of people that say the same of newspapers, talkback radio, and chatshows. I am more and more distrustful in particular of the cult of the personality.

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