If you’re of my generation, then nearly half of your life is divided between one-foot-in and one-foot-out of the internet age. Maybe others don’t feel this, but I still have some version of shell shock about the complete alteration of information flow.
No, I’m not trying to launch into a “back-in-the-day-things-were-better” column. I think there are tradeoffs, some good, some bad.
But I think a lot about how this time is transformative in human history. Basically, I see a density to life that wasn’t there in the pre-internet world. There is this huge firehose of humanity just flowing all the time, and you can plug in and consume as much as you want at any time. You can fill all of your life and all of your time tapped into the brains of others — their thoughts, comments, photos, likes, hatreds, crazy dances, cat videos, whatever. You can hurl your own thoughts, feelings, images to the world and hope for a return.
It’s such a change from what I knew. I think back to my first interaction with newspapers. I woke up early in the morning and hurried up our driveway to pick up the morning paper so I could check out the baseball box scores. I didn’t know until the morning what happened in the games the night before. Now, I can follow every pitch in real time if I want. In the Google age, there is often no empty space between wanting to know and getting an answer.
That’s wonderful in many ways. But if you’ve ever listened to a sporting event on the radio and been emotionally invested in it, then perhaps you can understand something about what I’m trying to say. Sometimes there’s a power in empty space. When I have listened to events on the radio, my mind fills in all the imagery. When I can’t recall a certain fact, I go down the paths of association, trying to piece it together, which is a journey in itself.
The internet can rapidly substitute someone else’s information for our missing parts, our missing answers. The web promises the elimination of mental work. But these conveniences create density in a way, too, like being at a restaurant with a 50-page menu. Think about how long you might look through that thing before you ever ordered. Too much of anything can be paralyzing.
And because so much is available, we can live with a brain that is in constant gathering mode, just tuned in to the firehose and drinking, never letting it settle, never digesting. Meanwhile, the other side of the screen is doing everything it can to keep us consuming so that it can gather information on us and sell us more and more.
In this way, we are both consumers and products in this bigger information economy. Think of how many more news stories a person can consume in a day than in 1980. And you can do so without any variety, just getting reinforcements of whatever you already believe. And if you get tunnel vision, then that’s great in the information economy, because it makes you predictable, and predicting others’ behavior is the ultimate asset online. That’s what can be sold.
I don’t want to be tied to too closely to all that. Do you? I want freedom from that.
So the moments in the quiet — like when I’m remembering a day or thinking of people I know — are a lot different mentally than scrolling through one headline after another. And those moments are more valuable in a bigger sense.
It seems like a good idea to have some balance in this regard. If I wasn’t getting any input from the world, say I lived isolated in the woods, then I think I’d go crazy. But if I turn the dial completely the other way, and I’m blasting my eyes and ears at every waking moment with all that’s beeping, blinking, blaring in the world, then I couldn’t hack that either.
I think empty spaces are OK. Sometimes it’s good to sit somewhere inside or outside and just think — or not think, just clearing the mind a little.
That firehose is going to keep on spewing its information every moment of every day. The world is going to keep on with its craziness.
But I find that the empty spaces in my life, the quiet moments, don’t tend to stay empty for very long. They are usually filled by noticing something I otherwise wouldn’t have thought or seen, something a wifi connection wouldn’t bring.
I don’t want to trade that away to Siri.
Some questions Siri just can’t answer.