Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.
– Henry David Thoreau, 1854
Our Information Age is a grand old time. Now, more than ever, we can know what’s happening on the other side of the world in the twitch of a finger. We have a veritable fount of knowledge to draw upon; every riddle has a solution, every problem has an answer, every destination has a safe path. The internet and media has broken down barriers of mystery and shattered imagination; we no longer need to wonder or research at how the sun turns overhead—somebody has done it for us.
We seek out knowledge, regardless of whether or not it’s worth seeking. And we end up with what we ask for—a whole bunch of information that has no purpose. We go looking for truth and instead fill our heads with the inane and unessential and are contented. We need meat, but instead eat cotton candy. There is a place for cotton candy—at a carnival, where we are looking to be entertained, and in small amounts. But to make one’s diet revolve around cotton candy is to allow the mind to become slow and lazy.
The Age of Information (and it’s more serious, yet mistreated brother, Knowledge) has ransacked Wisdom. We are the most informed people ever to walk the earth, yet we are perhaps the most foolish. Our father’s books are too long for us; we can know the whole story in a few lines. Moderation and meditation are for monks and fanatics, and we leave these comical vices to those who have the time to indulge in such pointless intellectual discipline.
Any rational man would regard it as a health problem if they sat on the couch for six hours a day and ate nothing but fast food and washed it down in litre after litre of soda. Their body would feel the strain of it, and they would quickly become tired and sluggish. If they didn’t change their lifestyle, they would quickly be confined to a wheelchair, subject to the direction and guidance of whoever was pushing them at any given moment. If they remarked, “I have become exceptional at consuming quantities of fast food,” we would scoff at them: how silly to take pride in something that we ought be ashamed of.
And yet in our insatiable thirst for knowledge and stimulation, we will sit in front of a computer screen for days on end—playing games, reading two-cent news articles, and filling our minds with bits of useless information that began to pile up like black mildew in a sink. We have a lot of this mildew available, and we are very good at it gathering it, but does that mean it’s worth indulging in the first place? The wise man knows he knows nothing; the fool thinks he knows all.
Object, if you please, on the grounds that this Age of Information provides a means to stay in touch with distant friends and family. If people who are not present are the focus of your attention, then by all means, continue to give your time to those who aren’t around. If it is important to know what your high school friend is having for breakfast in Maryland, then leave off your own breakfast in California.
We live in a place where we are relatively free to do as we please, and if we please to neglect the reality of the physical moment in exchange for 140 characters, that is our business. But that does not make it ideal, nor healthy. You may know the state of your cousin in Italy this morning, but do you know the state of your friend across the table this afternoon? Have you taken time to talk, or would you prefer to throw up the flimsy wall of a laptop or a cell phone and hide behind that? Human interaction is difficult; interaction with a screen is easy and stimulating. A magic show is fun and entertaining, life is hard.
Object also, on the grounds of being informed about the world around you. I would be more willing to concede this point, but only to a degree. Information that sparks action or a complete world perspective is wonderful; that Hugo Chavez passed away is huge news—where will Venezuela go from here? There is a place for such news; this is an improved means to a reasonable end—knowing the state of the world around you, being an informed human being.
However, this is not necessary; it is neither good nor bad. It gives us the illusion of being responsible, but if we do not do anything with our knowledge except file it away in the recesses of our mind and pull it out to show people, then what good is it? What does it benefit a man to know everything yet do nothing?
If I know of that terrible earthquake in Japan, and then I go to Japan to help, or send my resources in my place—this was news worth knowing. If I know that some new laptop or movie is coming out next month, and I spend my time waiting and talking about it—instead of, say, the tsunami in Japan—I am no better than a small child reading a nice story of castles and fairies, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a princess.
Then there is the rest of the “information”: the 30-second sound bites, the useless facts, and the endless stream of lazy humor. Most pitiful of all is the shouting commentators on such events, whose opinion and influence holds no sway unless projected onto the theater screen of a message board, where they can get the flickering warmth of attention, if only for a moment. They are like a freezing man in the midst of a storm, lighting individual matches for warmth. Or, in the case of those who try to enflame others, they are like a man who burns his entire box of matches all at once, and then is left to a merciful death from hypothermia.
That doesn’t mean that you need entirely give up any sort of electronic interaction; there is indeed a place for such means of communication. Sit down at any computer, and the world is at your fingertips. But any man who is given the whole world, and prefers to forever crawl from shallow ditch to shallow ditch is a man to be pitied. Our Age of Information should be a tool, not a lifestyle. When we pull out a phone instead of having a conversation, we are valuing an illusion (at best, a shallow form of interaction) over those around us. Why turn to a blind crowd to hear their every thought, whim, and idea? We would do better to listen to the crazy drunk on the street corner shouting that he had been probed by aliens. At least that man is passionate and committed enough to say what he believes where people will see his face; at least that man is a member of society—albeit a disturbed one. For if someone entirely neglects all personal, physical interaction, they aren’t anti-social, they’re inhuman.
So where is the line? There must be some measure, some filter to determine what we take in and shut out. The answer is simple and subjective; do unto your mind as you would do unto your body. If you would view it as a good use of time to sit on the couch, cram greasy fries down your throat, and never lift a finger to exert any meaningful effort, then do the same in your intellectual life. But if you want to explore, to dance a salsa, to sit on the beach as the sun sets, to do something that will perhaps leave some shallow imprint on the world that one day a person may venture to pass by and see, then do the same for your mind. You do not learn how to ride a bike by sitting on a couch; nor do you become an interesting human being by staring at a screen. Perhaps you can walk; why not learn to run? It’s not pleasant, but it’s a sight better than giving up creativity and life abundant to some glowing pictures and lines. The glow may be stimulating, but this stimulation—like cocaine—only lasts for a season, and then leaves a mind empty and ragged.
A pagan man would look at us and think that we worship our laptops, our cell phones, our televisions—these glowing idols. He would think us possessed, the way we sit in quiet subjugation to a flickering light. Ancient gods demanded a sacrifice, then men could go on their way. Our new gods are far more cruel than the pagan’s. They require our constant attention; we must sacrifice our very lives to appease them. The pagan, in all his barbaric wisdom, could recognize enslavement for what it is—that every time our idol vibrates or makes a noise, we are obligated to placate it with tapping hands and spoken words.
“You call me barbaric?” he would remark, “I who worship the sun, and the sky, and the raging sea—I am the fool? At least I worship things that are bigger than me, that can tear me asunder. I worship that which I cannot understand. At the foot of my gods, I have become still and calm. I have sought peace and clarity in the midst of storms.”
“But you enlightened folk are too good to be still and be small. You have taken the fierce gaze of the sun and hid from it. You cower away in caves and crowd around glowing statues of your own creation—weak gods that entertain you and whisper to you. I worship gods that frighten me; you worship gods that make you giggle.”
And then, when he was done speaking, he would look around in incredulous pity, and he would leave. He would go back to his home, where the sea is still violent and untamed, where the breath of God still dances along the crooked fingers of the tress. He would leave us to our caves and endless knowledge, and he would return to his wilderness.
Maybe I could talk him into taking me with him.