This is insulting...mainly to chimpanzees!

Warning: The preamble is quite a few paragraphs. I will address technology and learning, but you have to survive my personal anecdote first.

[Preamble]

For the second year running, I have returned home for the holiday season, this particular visit a good deal longer than the last. During last year’s visit, I commented both through this blog and in-person to my friends on how stress-relieving the experience of returning home was. From a postgraduate program’s (probably fairly light) workload to more difficult issues of personal relationships, I utilized my time at home as a period of safe exploration and evaluation. Without worry of money, without need to patronize friendships (if you know what I mean), without distraction of having to do something: every element was aligned to provide a calm, introspective environment to think within. Here’s what I said then:

“I appeased my eyelids and sated my deprivation, sleeping in my balmy bed ten hours at a time. Brewing cups of coffee for Ida while pouring over the Register Star’s crossword on Tuesdays and Thursdays retained the summertime’s sublimity. Sitting on the back porch and watching the snow fall with stars still visible, cigarette or tea in hand, sedated the disquiet of my mind or otherwise. I adore home (despite rumor of the opposite). I claim this quotidian registry, this traipsing through time, as my own. [What a sexy phrase!]

“The sense of a coming home feels so strong to me. The universe placates me when I am here and enacts a masterful performance in which it corrects itself. I am calm at home. I am rational at home. I am carefree at home.”

Oh, how things have changed this year on this trip home. That “coming home” feels strong still, but I am not calm. Nor am I rational. Nor am I carefree.

I am anxious and aggressive, occasionally depressed(ish). This juncture is not familiar, so I must understand. And I never thought I would say it, but a lot of these feelings I blame on the currently-in-the-spotlight rhetoric seen on American television. I really do, though my full explanation will not attempt to defame further the media/rhetoric/Palin/Beck/etc.

Perhaps I can lay blame with the actual duration of my visit, which is more than double its predecessors length at nearly two months. Prior to coming home, I was abroad for eleven months. Eleven months: where international politics inspire a lesser interest due to unfamiliarity, American glitz and flashbulbs seem far away, and news casts are all controlled experiences (within a frame or internet window I pursue). My trip last Christmas lasted too short a time and involved too much catching up with friends to allow me to become entrenched in this “media storm.” With this trip spread amongst the nearly two months, the time in front of or in proximity to this rhetoric is extended. Even before last Christmas, I was at NYU and happily out of touch with current politics (or, rather, as involved as I chose to be). My point being that I have not encountered this brand of American culture in four years now.

And, to be fair, media has become derogatory, and I have no intention of making it seem more so. Especially since I consider my real issue here to be the way we collect, distribute, and (are forced to) perceive information, news, etc. Everything feels newly aggressive, similar to the way a recently famous celebrity is pursued by tabloid fodder and E! channel reporting, I would imagine. Content is too quickly changed, stories are too soon forgotten, and my life suddenly seems crushingly crowded. It is all so invasive. I cannot find a moment where I can disengage the machine of images, stories, ads, and opinions: I swear, Ray Bradbury is likely giggling to himself right now, while Orsen Wells cracks a smile in his grave! Technology is killing my mood. There I said it.

[The Goods]

But, and here’s what I really wanted to get to, there may be something to the thought that we are being punished by our own media technology and format. In a thought-provoking BBC News op-ed by Alain de Botton, entitled A Point of View: Does more information mean we know less?, we are thrown into the debate right at the start: “We pay a price for all the information we consume these days – and it’s knowing less.” What an eristically beautiful start! The problem is twofold, de Botton implies, or at least I think he does. First, the epidermis: the vast supply of readily available information. Second, the dermis:  our psychological struggle to cope with our perceived lack of knowledge.

Is Wikipedia the Antichrist or my savior?

By addressing the epidermis, I simply point to those oft-criticized-but-always-utilized social media outlets, our manufactured need to possess our friends through their activities. I never needed to know that you were very hungover after the office party so much so that you couldn’t brush your teeth without vomiting.  But now I do, and I actively can be a better friend with that knowledge. As de Botton writes:

“There is a deeper issue at stake – the feeling, so rife in modern secular culture, that we must constantly keep up with what is new. The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties. Something that if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellow human beings.”

Even more entertaining sites, such as the #5 website in the whole world, Wikipedia, provide so much information that suddenly seems relevant to my existence. Wiki-chaining or wiki-crack may sound unfamiliar, but are activities we take part in daily weekly, but probably daily. Both terms describe, depending on the nature of your habits, the process of becoming lost in Wikipedia, going incidentally from one intriguing entry to another almost by accident. And yet, with every entry I pass by, I remember very little.

I would be the first to admit how much I adore my (wiki-)crack, which makes me more sure that de Botton may have been right on the money. In a stunningly astute observation, he writes, “In the end, all modern artists share something of the bathetic condition of chefs, for whereas their works may not themselves erode, the responses of their audiences will. We honour the power of culture, but rarely admit with what scandalous ease we forget its individual monuments.” That anticlimax, where one’s state of mind feels it possesses some kind of advanced knowledge that quickly disappears by a sense of lack and time elapsing, is my (probably not) unique feeling of the past few months. A part of my mind says that any time I have spent in heavy academic work has produced the same feelings of stupidity or ignorance. But there is something more sinister and aggressive, more intrusive in the manner of this occasion’s ignorance. As I mentioned, I do not control the functions but am led toward the guillotine on a path laid in fiber-optic cables.

And that, no doubt, is founded upon the dermis, our psychological struggle. Yet this is where de Botton and I disagree. Comparing our information age to the experience of being a landowning medieval citizen, de Botton waxes philosophic on a time of quiet reflection and hermetically-learned universal truths. He writes:

“We occasionally sense the nature of our loss at the end of an evening, as we finally silence the TV after watching a report on the opening of a new railway or the tetchy conclusion to a debate over immigration.

“It is then we might realise that – in attempting to follow the narrative of man’s ambitious progress towards a state of technological and political perfection – we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of eternal, quieter truths which we know about in theory, and forget to live by in practice.”

Rightly, one commentator called Allectus has noted that “In the age of Jesus genuinely new things could be decades apart. Life was harsh, full of suffering, superstition, ignorance, and often curtailed. By comparison to suggest our safe contemporary lives are diminished because we have the “option” of living with less reflective time is laughable.” Allectus uses de Botton’s appropriation and romanticizing to draw his own (more correct) conclusion.

de Botton drowns his belief in the price we pay for “promiscuous involvement with novelty” with sentimental, inappropriate commentary on the ineffable role of religious order, but does little more than confound his argument. “Matins have here been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin and Vespers into the evening report,” he says, suggesting that information blasts have eliminated the purposeful reflection and introspection of prayer and community. So too much information to get at those tricky little gems of hidden truth, right? He then goes on to say (and ruin his argument), “The news occupies in the secular sphere much the same position of authority that the liturgical calendar has in the religious one.” To me, this undercuts his explanation. If news has the authority of holy days and a resonance with secular people, it must be (as he argues) sufficiently drawn out and unchanging with the years. It would not oversaturate, therefore, the collective conscious of the population; these news events would be purposeful, but intentionally lay.

Sometimes, I worry more about newscasts than I do about the full onslaught of .coms, newspapers, and magazines. Newscasts, and the other media outlets to some extent, fetishize particular events and imply that these certain things you should care about. There is little control in how newscasts function on a personal level: I cannot choose what news interests me, what I would like to hear more about, and how far reaching the journalists go. Instead, I am given my daily dose of medicine as prescribed by media heads as to what will make me a cultured and informed citizen. Paring down my individual experience, the news emphasizes things I normally suppress, like shocking tragedies and random I-can’t-believe-they-even-use-facebook-on-a-newscast facebook opinions, which I often disagree with and just make me angry.

In any case, de Botton founds his ideas in the psychology of rarity, which seems out of touch and faulty. “We are often urged to celebrate not only that there are so many books to hand, but also that they are so inexpensive. Yet neither of these circumstances should necessarily be deemed unambiguous advantages.” Really? Do tell. “We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than St Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.” With what I have said above regarding crack Wikipedia, I think his point is somewhat valid on this matter. As such, I read up a bit on intelligence and our achievements in this age, weighed down though we are by information…apparently. In another BBC News article by David Shenk, called Is there a genius in all of us?, he notes a University of Otago study showing how “IQ scores themselves have steadily risen over the century – which, after careful analysis, he ascribes to increased cultural sophistication. In other words, we’ve all gotten smarter as our culture has sharpened us.” Genius, the article finds, or any other form of talent is not innate, but learned. Fascinating! Shenk writes:

“A century ago, geneticists saw genes as robot actors, always uttering the same lines in exactly the same way, and much of the public is still stuck with this old idea. In recent years, though, scientists have seen a dramatic upgrade in their understanding of heredity.

“They now know that genes interact with their surroundings, getting turned on and off all the time. In effect, the same genes have different effects depending on who they are talking to.

[…]

“All of these abilities are dependent on a slow, incremental process which various micro-cultures have figured out how to improve. Until recently, the nature of this improvement was merely intuitive and all but invisible to scientists and other observers.”

These facts put together stand to topple de Botton’s assertion (and my half-belief) that we are overpowered by our access to information. The study shows how surprisingly adaptable the post-post-modern man can be, suggesting we can absorb information successfully.  More successfully than our revered predecessors even with all that time on their hands. As Robert Sternberg states, “Intelligence represents a set of competencies in development.” We can cope. Science says so!

What I think de Botton really tries to get at is our great need to appreciate the little things again, to be able to recognize quality when it is there. And I fully agree with this. “We should stand to swap a few of our swiftly disintegrating paperbacks for volumes that would proclaim, though the weight and heft of their materials, the grace of their typography and the beauty of their illustrations, our desire for their contents to assume a permanent place in our hearts.” It is the recognition and esteem of things that must be adjusted, he pleads us to comprehend: “The need to diet, well accepted in relation to food, should be brought to bear on our relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.”

Too true.