Information Overload

I’m a big fan of education, and knowledge in general. I’ve always found a value in knowing as much as possible, not just about books, but about movies, film, popular culture, space, history, science – knowledge, facts, information, all this stuff is not only interesting, it has an intrinsic worth. The more you know, the stronger you are. The better you are, in a sense. Like a weight lifter, your mental girth expands with every factoid.

So every morning I read the Times and I read my blogs and I read Middlemarch. I do the crossword, because I like feeling clever and in the know. I watch the latest SNL spots on Hulu, I dabble in my few favorite web comics, and then, I sit here and I write my own blog, and write my own book, and put more information, my own information, back out into the world.

Never in the history of human society has so much knowledge been available so instantly. And, I would wager, never has all this information been deemed so relevant. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, we owe it to ourselves (don’t we?) to find out which new books/movies/albums are worth reading/viewing/seeing. Never has so much wormed its way into our brains. I’ve heard it said that America is anti-knowledge. But to my experience there is a Knowledge Deluge.

But that’s just my experience.

Which isn’t, as a whole, something received from the internet.

And here’s where it gets tricky, because with all this information demanding my attention, insisting on its own importance, I’m beginning to wonder how important it all really is. It’s easy to parse out some of the babble as irrelevant. I don’t NEED to see the latest remix of Battle at Kreuger. But if I go to a friend’s house, chances are, someone will show it to me anyway. Hollywood gossip isn’t essential, except that it’s… well, interesting. And people tend to bring it up in conversation. So that’s kind of important, too, I guess. I definitely should be informed about the government, and what we’re doing overseas, so that in November I can vote. As a Democrat. In Masachusettes…

In certain regards, all of this mental stuffing is relevant – but relevant to who, and why? Is it relevant to me? Really? If I spend hours a day informing myself only for the purpose of keeping up in conversation with my fellow scarf wearing intellectuals, is that really such a worthy pursuit? I can do the crossword okay, but beyond that, why do I need to know who played Uncle Fester on the original Adam’s Family (Jackie Coogan)? Essentially, why do I think knowledge is important?

For me, acquiring knowledge has always been a form of self-defense. There’s a lot of baloney out there, and a lot of it comes from people in authority. Education is a way of finding out for myself what’s true and what’s false. So acquiring knowledge is essentially a defense against all the other crap knowledge that assaults me every day. A coworker has ridiculous opinions about a subject – I’ve just read an article on this subject, and I put him in his place. Knowledge A) checked by Knowledge B), and everyone is better off.

Except that I’m not certain knowledge as a defense against bogus knowledge is such a wonderful thing either. If that’s the purpose of learning, then my life’s pursuit has been akin to amassing arms. Less personal growth than civil defense.

As I work on the book, I’m realizing that my characters are enacting this very debate. On the one hand I have a young man who is entirely plugged in to the world. He’s not considered “smart,” but he’s informed, and, as such, entirely a product of his surroundings. He’s made his choices from a shopping mall of opinion-options, prepackaged and prepaired. On the other hand you have a guy who refuses to choose from somebody else’s list, and so he unplugs, spends most his time in the woods, and is, well, also pretty unhappy.

I don’t have an answer yet (hell, the book isn’t finished), but I’m starting to ponder the quality of thinking, of knowledge, and especially of received wisdom. Because every second of my day I’m receiving more and more and more of it.

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