Thursday, April 08, 2004

Tuning Out

In the past day, I've read two articles critiquing the surplus of information at our finger tips. E-mail, blackberries, google, mainstream papers on line, blogs, links, links, and more links. Even the morning news has scrawl, so that you can consume double the information. How can we keep up?

Time Out New York (not on line) has a cover story, "Too Much Information," which discusses this modern phenomenon. They interview the author of Data Smog : Surviving the Information Glut who writes that too much information has left us confused and distracted. A hipster says that she feels pressured to keep up with the finalists on the Apprentice for party conversation. A blogger reports that he reads too many blogs and not enough books; he feels that he is getting dumber. It ends positively noting that words are not dead in this modern age.

Please note the irony of an informational article on how we have too much information.

My dad sent me a link to an article by Camille Paglia which deals with some of the same themes. Paglia despairs about American students who not longer have any interest in debating Dostoyevsky's Brothers K, like she did when she was a student in the 1960s. (Of course, she and her friends were also experimenting with pharmaceuticals at the time, but she doesn't say that.)

Paglia says, "As a classroom teacher for over thirty years, I have become increasingly concerned about evidence of, if not cultural decline, then cultural dissipation since the 1960s, a decade that seemed to hold such heady promise of artistic and intellectual innovation. Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them." There are too many images from TV and the computer. "The computer, with its multiplying forums for spontaneous free expression from e-mail to listservs and blogs, has increased facility and fluency of language but degraded sensitivity to the individual word and reduced respect for organized argument, the process of deductive reasoning. The jump and jitter of U.S. commercial television have demonstrably reduced attention span in the young. The Web too, with its addictive unfurling of hypertext, encourages restless acceleration."

OK, I stopped reading here, because I had to answer some e-mail, flip on the TV, and download some files.

When I took my comprehensive exams, I became painfully aware that my brain can only process so much information. Our PhD program demanded that we demonstrate mastery of 5 different bodies of literature on paper and before a committee of five. I remember my schedule during that last week: Tuesday morning -- all the works of Karl Marx, Tuesday afternoon -- everything to do with Congress, Wednesday morning -- Madison and Jefferson, Wednesday afternoon -- federalism. I had so much junk in my head that I was afraid that if I learned anything new, it would push out something vital. Like accidentally learning about Buffy's new boyfriend might make me forget the Communist Manifesto.

I'm still absorbing a lot of information. I check out 10 to 20 blogs regularly, as well as one or two major newspapers on line. I watch the television news twice a day. We also subscribe to the New Yorker, Time Out New York, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Granta, three political science journals, and Education Week. And we've cut down.

My method for not blowing a gasket is to be selective. Given the very sparse space in my brain, I have to be choosy about what I'm learning. There are certain topics that I completely ignore.

A partial list of facts and data that I'm completely ignoring, tuning out, or promptly forgetting:
anything to do with American Idol
football, hockey, golf, basketball
intelligent design
phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries, and names of people in the playground
your account of a crazy dream
calorie counts
the Plame affair
Al Gore
where I last put my coffee mug (need a homing device for that thing)
the state capitals to the left of Illinois
the recipe for a perfect martini (that's what a bartender is for)
how many cups in a pint
the entire metric system
Staten Island
my cell phone number
all Clinton scandals, except for Monica

(Have a good Easter, people. I'll be back on Sunday night after bingeing on hot pink Peeps, flavored jelly beans, and the kid's chocolate bunnies.)

UPDATE: Want more information on information? Masochist. No, really. Here's some good stuff by Brayden King and Bill Tozier.

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