Stuck in Idle

The August issue of PRINT Magazine is out, and with it, my latest column. It’s a different type of piece; this one is about information overload and what cost it might have to creativity…

One of my greatest fears is that my last living thoughts might be of Friends. Not my friends; that would be lovely. I mean the television show, Friends. Of all the things I could remember in my final moments—loved ones, nature, great art or music—I instead recall fake people I never really knew.

A particularly terrifying mystery of consciousness is our powerlessness over what we think and when we think it. How tragic that our last moments would be interrupted by the banality of a mediocre, mid-’90s sitcom! But “tragic” isn’t really the right word. “Tragic” would imply I’d only watched a handful of sitcoms in my entire life. Unfortunately, a handful is not even close. Try countless. And that’s just TV. This is the problem: we’ve so saturated our minds with noise that to hope we’ll be able to ferret out the signal in the moments that count is sadly naive.

Clay Shirky has said that the problem isn’t information overload, it’s filter failure. I’m not so sure about that. In his latest book, Too Big to Know, David Weinberger investigates the effects of abundant information and concludes that with the internet’s help, we’ve created a web of knowledge far too big for any individual to grasp alone; only a networked crowd can filter this vast accumulation.

Is there a limit to the mind’s capacity? It certainly seems that way—sometimes I can’t even remember the basics of what I did over the weekend. And Weinberger’s explanation of our limits, set in the context of the all-pervasive information economy, has the ring of truth to me. I can’t help feeling that for every LOLcat that goes in my brain, something else is pushed out. Perhaps something that, we’re I given the chance to decide, I would prefer to keep.

LOLcats are one thing; we can probably agree that they’re relatively meaningless. But what about all the other stuff we save? Between Google, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and every other repository of digital ephemera that rest so heavily upon the lighter-than-air metaphor of the cloud, we are never one tap, click or keystroke away from inspiration. Not so long ago, designers had to tear things from magazine, take their own photos, even visit libraries in their search for the right imagery for a new project. To those woeful, pre-cloud schlubs, the instant access we have now would be “an incalculable blessing.”

Those are the words of the cultural critic William Deresiewicz, who, in a 2009 essay, The End of Solitude, wrote that though the internet was such a blessing to the isolated masses of late 20th century American suburbia, it has become an oppressive killer of creativity in the 21st. He cites Emerson, who wrote, “He who should inspire…must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” In other words, the more access you have to other people’s ideas, the weaker your own become.

The writer John Naughton is worried that the internet has already run out of ideas. In an op-ed for The Guardian, he points out that the most popular corners of the internet are tightly controlled by corporations that are not interested in user innovation. Think about it. Tools like Flickr, Pinterest and Tumblr are designed for collecting, organizing and sharing, not creating. And the more time we spend collecting, the less time we spend creating. Eventually, working on the web could feel a lot like panning for gold at a theme park: Lots of sand and a few worn, fake gems.

Written by Christopher Butler on August 11, 2012,   In Essays

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