In Episode 51 of the Real Life Survival Guide, my fellow panelist Christine Ohlman put her finger on an increasingly troublesome self-care issue: managing noise.
We watch screens all day long; they scream at us with work tasks, spam, legitimate e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, news, sports, gossip.
Our society essentially demands it. Long ago the U.S. shifted from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy, where our livelihood depends on our ability to process information quickly. Then 20 years ago the “information superhighway” promised a revolution in the way we absorb and process work-related information, and in how we entertain ourselves.
Amazingly, the hype lived up to the reality. Every single profession has been remade by the high speed Internet, and our non-working hours have been utterly transformed as well. And thanks to personal computers formerly known as “phones,” we’ve gained perpetual connectivity and lost the distinction between work and recreation time.
And yet something feels wrong about the information tsunami – and not simply because it feels different.
To me, and more than a few others, it feels merely unwise.
We’ve heard a version this story before. A hundred years ago, Steve Jobs’ low-tech forerunner, Henry Ford, gave cheap cars to the masses. These machines gave humans access to a breathtaking new dimension: speed.
For decades, that also gave humans a grimmer novelty: auto fatalities. Until we devised safer cars and roadways, autos exacted an absurdly high price from society, even as productivity boomed.
We don’t die from speeding down the information superhighway with a billion other drivers who are drunk on data. But I would argue that drinking too frequently from the data firehose leaves us vulnerable to making poor decisions in business, and in life, and leaves us vulnerable to leading less happy lives.
In business, we increasingly rely on data at the expense of observation. In life we increasingly rely on virtual interaction at the expense of face-to-face interaction. And when we do connect face-to-face, we are often distracted by screens, offering us another stream of information.
It’s simple enough math: when you have a surplus of information and finite hours in a day, you squeeze the information into shorthand in order to process the data.
So we become a shorthand society. A society of headlines and no depth. A society of conversational soundbites. A society of too much knowledge and too little wisdom. Meanwhile, our minds have not changed. We crave depth and perspective, and we need more free thought than what we might snatch during REM sleep.
There must be a way to feel healthier as we settle into the new reality of infinite information.
Like Christine Ohlman, I believe it starts with turning down the noise. If we are to be good producers of information, we cannot be constant consumers of information. Good information is created through deliberation.
Deliberation is the enemy of Facebook and Twitter, whose revenues are a function of information quantity, not quality.
There is no Department of Transportation governing the sane delivery of information. No one will devise brakes for the Internet. Your Internet company won’t do it. Apple won’t do it. Facebook won’t do it.
It’s our job.
If we are to become producers of good information, if we wish to create ideas that have a half-life longer than a Tweet, I’d argue that we need diminish the amount of information we consume.
I try to observe screen-free Saturdays. I’ve traded TV for the acoustic guitar, and added about two hours of non-screen time to every evening. Other friends have deleted the Facebook icon from their phones. Or they’ll check email only certain times a day. Still others practice yoga, or ride a stationary bicycle, or take walks, or long showers, or listen to music. They do one thing at a time, in a way that allows their thoughts to roam free.
Call it what you like. To me, it’s dialing down the noise from the hive mind, so I can hear “the still small voice,” as Duo Dickinson put it.
The alternative is to spend one’s life thinking other people’s thoughts, not building wisdom from yourself, for yourself. Because if that’s not a recipe for high-speed tragedy on a societal level, I don’t know what is.
For the past 13 years Bob Tedeschi has been a weekly technology columnist for the New York Times, and for many of those years he’s also written weekly or monthly columns on other topics, including travel, mortgages, small town life and, currently, do-it-yourself home improvement.
Bob is also a high school lacrosse coach and a longtime youth basketball and lacrosse coach in Guilford, where he lives with his wife and four children (two boys, two girls), whose ages range between 10 and 23.