There is an endless amount of data these days. I’d bet that the data gathered by your phone in a single day is more data than a person could analyze and interpret in an entire year. Think about it: obvious data like photos and videos and audio clips, and other data like websites pinged, GPS data, gyroscopic data.
Once, I was the guy with no password on my phone. No case either, but I’m still caseless. I thought, ‘It’s my phone, anything that makes it slower / harder for me to access is a burden, and besides, what data even is there?’. O — my follies are numerous and great.
Data might be the oil of our time. Yet, few of us think about how valuable data actually is, or how much data actually exists. It pervades our society. There’s a wealth of data just generated each time you go to the grocery store, every instance you leave you house. From the text log between my girlfriend and I, you could easily figure out where we are, when we go somewhere, our schedule, our routines, what we’re doing, reading, seeing, or thinking at any given moment. They’re so detailed that at my last job, I used them to complete my timesheet.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
However, this goes both ways; not only is the data that we generate so pervasive, but our culture is now one that is filled with content, posts (like this!), tweets, “takes”, and of course, news.
There’s a video, which I won’t link because of the disturbing content but can be found easily enough, of the four major US networks on the moment of the September 11th attacks. You can see the shock and breathlessness as the news of this terrible event rippled across our society. Almost a side-note in this unimaginable tragedy, you can see the exact moment when the 24-hour news cycle began.
In the moments and hours and weeks following, there was just so much information and confusion coming out, that most news networks began running ‘breaking news’ when something was revealed. I remember as a child, thinking it was almost a comfort, that perhaps someone, the journalists or the police or the government could get to the bottom of this, could figure out what had happened, exactly. The idea that such an event was unknowable didn’t occur to me then.
This constant faucet of news and bulletins and memos, of reporters on the ground and reporters in the studio, of articles and broadcasts, has never stopped. There’s entire networks now built around this concept. Turn on CNN or MSNBC or FOX right now and I bet you’ll get a ‘Breaking News’ bulletin within a few minutes.
When is so much information too much? When does it become not an asset, a resource for someone to take in and help understand the world but a burden to bear?
Part of me thinks we’re reaching critical mass. I just wrote about how often we’re on our phones. For so many, that’s the first thing they look at in the day, and the last thing they look at in the evening. It’s hard not to, when it’s your alarm clock. From there, it’s so easy to be swept up in the dopamine fix of notifications and social networks which is all designed around you using your phone as much as possible.
I’m caught up in it as much as anyone, more than most. I can feel the reflexive urge to pick my phone out of my pocket as I wait for water to boil in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel the pull in-between downtime in my thoughts.
Life is difficult, even for the most privileged people in the wealthiest countries. Even for the luckiest in society, life is still full of anxieties, stress, sorrow, loss. Sometimes, a distraction can make you feel better. And there’s nothing wrong about feeling better, or wanting to. It’s just that sometimes the things we think will make us feel better actually make the problem much worse.
I was reminded recently of a class I took in college, on existentialist philosophy. The class was 10 or fewer students, and we’d sit around a group of tables pushed together with the professor, and spend the next two hours and 45 minutes talking about whatever book we’d been asked to read over the course of previous week. These texts ranged from a few of the works of Nietzsche, Sartre, and ended with contemporary French communist texts like writing from Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee.
I loved that class, largely because it was close to what I had hoped for from my college experience. A place where students could be confronted with ideas and concepts otherwise unfamiliar, and discuss and grapple with them with the guiding hand of a teacher.
One of the most impactful classes was after reading an excerpt from Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’, where he outlines his concept of ‘Dasein’, a “being-in-the-world”. He talks about how we’re always confronted with the anxiety of living, pushing for the next experience to help diminish this pain. But we can never truly divorce ourselves from this experience, because we’re inextricably part of the world.
We talked about the concept for a while, until the professor was sure we had a grasp on it, and then he began a sentence and… went silent. He sat there, and we did in response, for what felt like a huge amount of time. In a world filled with so many distractions, actually feeling the weight and anxiety of social situations, and life itself, is a wakeup call.
I don’t believe in blocking anyone’s access to information, or knowledge. I’m naive enough to think that information is mostly beneficial to the populace, and an informed public is a healthier one. However, I do think there’s something hollow about our current state of affairs.
In a world where everyone on the street has earbuds in, where our pockets contain enough buzzes, blips, and flashes to keep us entertained for a lifetime, will we ever decide it’s enough?
I think there’s some small-scale push back against this now, some inklings of a larger movement. While it feels good, or at least can, I think people are starting to realize the lack of substance with this sort of thing. Will we ever dial it back, choose willingly to slow the faucet, to return computers to screens in the basement, and messages to boxes on the street? Perhaps we’ll start to feel like the infinite scroll is not adding to our lives, but causing more harm than it’s worth.