I’m a little bit disappointed. OK, not anymore. But I was. For months now I have been writing posts which summarize and link to other posts from new bloggers from the Rising Voices projects. You see, I am begging you to read what they write, begging you to leave encouraging comments. But no one does. Not my friends, not my co-workers,
not the people who give us money to run the program (actually, Kristen has been one of Rising Voices’ biggest supporters).
No one seems to care.
And all of a sudden I’m OK with that. We are 6.5 billion people on this planet. We can’t pretend to care about everyone. And if we do, well, then it’s just that, pretending.
Global Voices’ mission was, and I suppose still is, to shine light on those voices traditionally ignored by the mainstream media. Now there is a new force at work to make all voices ignored – the fact that there are just too many of them. We are drowning in noise. And we are adding water to the flooding river.
Last year … hell, maybe it was more than a year ago … I had lunch with Boris in San Francisco. He was the first person to tell me that he had stopped using his RSS reader. There was no way to keep up, he said, and besides, it all stopped seeming important. Now people left and right tell me they’ve given up on their RSS readers. Instead they just click a link or even enter in a website URL whenever it might occur to them. Josh is looking for an RSS replacement. (He’ll also soon be responsible for adding more water to the flood.) Beth Kanter also complains that she isn’t able to keep up with her RSS feeds anymore. But she’s written so many posts just in the past day alone that I’m not able to find the one about information overload.
Are we talking too much? Is the fact that so many people are talking about so many people talking too much the ultimate irony?
There is a long thread on Edge.org which was inspired by by Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Carr’s argument is that the stream-like flow of information on the internet is making it difficult for many of us to read anything longer than three paragraphs. Because Carr’s argument was longer than three paragraphs, I didn’t read it.
Until last night, finally.
All of my fellow nine white American males participating in the discussion made excellent points about the significance of today’s (over)abundance of information. But the bit that really hit home for me comes from W. Daniel Hillis:
We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat …
It is not just that the world has gotten more complicated (it has), but rather that more of the world has become relevant. Not only is world more connected (or, as Thomas Friedman would, say, flatter), but it is also bigger. There are more people, and more of them than ever have the resources to do something that matters to us …
We need to know more because we are expected to make more decisions. I can choose my own religion, my own communications carrier, and my own health care provider. As a resident of California, I vote my opinion on the generation of power, the definition of marriage and the treatment of farm animals. In the olden days, these kinds of things were decided by the King …
I also need to know more just to have friends. I manage to get by without knowing exactly why Paris Hilton is famous, but I cannot fully participate in society without knowing that she is well known. Of course, my own social clan has its own Charlie Rose version of celebrities, complete with must-read books, must-understand ideas, and must-see films. I am expected to have an opinion about the latest piece in The Atlantic or the New Yorker. Actually, I need to learn more just to understand the cartoons.
I rearranged and extracted from Hillis’ argument. But the essential significance, at least for me, remains the same: Just because we can befriend anyone anywhere in the world, and just because we can learn about where they come from, does that mean that we should?
How do we decide who we care about? How do we decide what to read about? What is it that makes our brain remember and value certain conversations but not others?
A couple weeks ago I was sitting at a dinner table with people from various parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. There were about 12 of us in total and we were doing what strangers do when they eat together for the first time: making small talk. As the conversation went around the table I asked my new acquaintances about the latest news items I had read about their countries. It didn’t matter if they were from Vietnam, Ukraine, Korea, or Angola – thanks to Global Voices I knew the latest events, scandals, and debates in all of their countries. Eventually someone asked how it was that I seemed to know everything about everywhere in the world. It was, of course, my opportunity to suggest that they too read Global Voices.
But now that I think about it, besides impressing international groups at dinner tables, why is it that I keep reading about Vietnam?
I have all 2.2 gigabytes of Wikipedia on my iPhone. That’s right, I downloaded Wikipedia and put it on my iPhone to read offline. (It has been helpful to, for example, settle arguments about which was Weezer’s first album.)
I could buy a solar iPhone charger, hide out in the Himalaya, read all of Wikipedia, and return to civilization three years later. What would I gain? How much would I remember? What would my brain do with its new 2.2 gigabytes of worldly information?
I’m not the first person to ponder that question. A few years ago I read a book by some witty journalist who read all of the Britannica encyclopedia from A to Z. I think it took him a year. The resulting book was a collection of strange facts and stories contained within Britannica as well as funny stories about how reading the entire encyclopedia affected his social life.
But that’s about all I remember. (I also recall that there was a chapter in which the author takes a speedreading class and comes to the conclusion that it harms his reading comprehension.) In fact, that is why I am determined to write reviews of every book I read on GoodReads – I’m afraid it’s the only way I’ll remember what the hell it is I have read.
So will I keep up with Rising Voices? Keep adding more water to the torrent?
Yes. Because even though we all complain about information overload, it’s not as if we’ve stopped reading and consuming media. Part of it is a technology problem: we haven’t yet discovered how to discover what it is we want to discover. Or, to put it another way, even though I have all 2.2 gigabytes of Wikipedia on my iPhone, I rarely know what to start reading about.
Even though you might not care what some young girl in Dhaka has to say today, maybe someday you will. Or, if not you, maybe someone else will.
This feeling of drowning in information goes away once we realize that it’s OK to just stand back and watch the river go by. That it’s OK to focus on just a drop here, and drop there.
I’ll also keep with Rising Voices and keep writing about it because, as Leonard writes, “it feels good.”
PS: I too have been cutting back on my RSS reading lately. But every day I have been reading one post from the archives of Zen Habits. It’s become a sort of bible, something to go back to, for the era of abundance. Here is a good place to start.