[This essay appeared in issue #9 of Offscreen magazine]
We love to blame the world because the world can’t blame us back. I recently read Sarah Gooding’s article titled Drowning in Data: When News is Noise. She feels information overload makes it hard to cultivate creativity. It’s a sweet article and you should read it, even if I disagree. She writes:
It’s never been easier to be productive, but it’s also never been harder. With technology and a flood of information at my fingertips every time I turn on an Internet-connected device, my resolve crumbles.
There is a difference between how something feels and how something is. Of course life feels overwhelming at times. We all struggle to concentrate on what we want to now and then. But that doesn’t mean the world, or the technology in it, is accountable for our problems. Throughout history some people have struggled to be creative and to concentrate, while others haven’t found it to be much of a struggle at all. What explains the difference? I don’t think technology has much to do with it.
My theory is it’s best to think of information overload as a myth. As long as the things that distract you have an off switch, the problem isn’t the world, the problem is you. The world has always had far more information than we can consume, much less comprehend. The only thing that’s changed is our self-righteous stress in response to it. Consider these situations:
- When you go to a concert with friends are you distracted by the crowds around you?
- When you go to a bookstore, are you overwhelmed by the books you see?
- When you walk in nature, do the thousands of plants & insects stress you out?
- When you breathe, does the abundance of air in the atmosphere around the planet worry you?
There are floods of information at our fingertips all the time, even when you go camping in the wilderness or when the power goes out in your apartment. The same arguments about how mobile devices or social networks are overwhelming could be made about anything on the list above. But we don’t make those arguments about anything other than technology and media. Why? Technology is an easy target. It’s easy to blame. It reflects our product centric culture that it is products, and not ourselves, that are the problem. We imbue technology with god-like powers which gives us the psychological crutch of blaming it first. But we forget only we turn the devices on and only we can turn them off. Gooding briefly mention The Slow Web, but even this puts technology in the center ring. Your mind should come first, always your mind. Our minds excel at tuning things out. We tune out an infinity of information all the time.
Much of our talk about information overload echoes the excuses of addiction. We complain that the web is trash, yet we complain about how hard it is to turn it off. We crave, we habituate, we justify, and we get nervous and uncomfortable when we don’t get our fix. And when we fail and feel bad we blame the technologies, and the world, for our problems. We wonder “why is there so much information? Who did this to us?” when the answer is always the person asking the question. We’ve been well trained to consume far more than we need. Our apartments and garages are filled with things we never use, yet we feel guilt in getting rid of them. Instead we want even more things. And we feel guilt there too, but not enough to change our behavior. It’s wise to ask who benefits from all this negative energy around consumption. It’s probably not you.
We consume information the same way: our inboxes and reading lists are several lifetimes long, yet every day we go out and chase more for no good reason at all. It’s a paradox: we fear missing out so much that we miss out. We are compelled to be information fiends, hoarding it, feeling shame over it, feeling dopamine rushes when we capture new batches, conquests that only repeat the same pattern. There’s really no reason to worry about reading all the books you own but haven’t read, yet we do. Speed reading is shallow reading, and we know, as Gooding points out, that we want depth over volume. The problem is very little of our behavior is in line with that goal. But if you can’t make your behavior align with your goals, whose problem is it? Nothing stops you from reading The Power of Habit, except, of course, your habits. Maybe useful books of self-awareness like it sit sadly in your queue, as you’ve forgotten it’s only reading books that helps your mind, not the buying.
The Internet is a black hole of information, sucking me in with its digital distractions.
Socrates never said “I’d do great work if I didn’t have philosophy overload from hanging out at the agora.” Emily Dickinson didn’t complain of vocabulary overload in the English language. Picasso, Da Vinci, Tesla and Marie Curie all possessed amazing curiosities and could have easily been distracted away from their work by the abundance of sex, food, conversation, money, news, books, and paintings in their lives. Yet they worked. They produced. Van Gogh was mad and starving and produced. Every generation has had its grand distractions. We forget ancestors painted on cave walls, as the struggle for survival didn’t stop their creativity. Bukowski was a drunk and a bum in nearly every sense of the word, yet wrote and wrote and wrote even more. With as little as he had, he sacrificed his time, and arguably his life, in the service of his ideas. What are you willing to sacrifice to create? If you don’t sacrifice something, it’s the creating that will be sacrificed for you. For our grandparents it was radio. For our parents it was TV. For us it’s the web. For our children it will be something else. There is always a justifiable distraction but history does not give you a pass for the ideas you let yourself get distracted away from.
As a writer I have days where no matter how much I want to work, I’m unproductive. I know it comes with the territory. I know my daily habits are a shield and my passion and love for ideas must fuel that shield and make it both stronger and more flexible. But I’m human and sometimes my habits fail me or I them. But I will never blame Netflix, or Twitter, or a phone, for the same reasons I would never blame the wind or the sky. It’s up to me to gain control over my mind. It’s my job as professional to take responsibility for both the inputs and outputs of my brain. It’s the willingness to work, over months and years, to make my mind an ally in my pursuits and not an adversary. But the first step is to stop blaming the information or the world. The world and the technology in it has never been the problem and as long as every device we use has an off switch, it never will be.
If you feel like you are drowning in data, stand up. Stand up for yourself and own your consumption. You’ll discover when you stand that you’ve been “drowning” in a kiddie pool all along.