Too Much Information

MEDITATING ON DISTRACTION

When I was in high school, teachers emphasized the need to be “well informed,” to read newspapers—that was essential to being a good citizen.

I didn’t need to be pushed in that direction. From the moment I could read, I began the day by poring over our very bad local newspaper, from the front page news about the war in Korea to the comics page and Alley Oop (more interesting than the war).

I haven’t stopped. Every morning I pick up the New York Times, do the crossword puzzle, and then read the whole damn thing. I also listen to the news on National Public Radio and visit several Web sites, and I am beginning to think I’m nuts.

Where newspapers are concerned, I am part of a shrinking crowd. It isn’t news that newspapers have lost ground to the Internet. No doubt it’s my age, but I don’t like to spend much time reading from a computer screen (though a friend predicts that I will own an Amazon Kindle within six months). The loss of newspaper readership may be traced to general indifference rather than to competition from the Internet, and to the feeling that we get enough news from the casual information provided by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or, God help us, from Twitter.

But I really can’t feel superior to those who spend time hooked to their Blackberries or Twittering or chatting away on their cell phones, because all of us are on the same mission. We are distracting ourselves. We are afraid of being alone.

I agree that we should be attentive to what is happening out there, but I devote way too much time to it. When I spent a week in a monastery and tuned in to the news during my drive home, nothing had really changed. The news readers sounded as urgent as ever, but at one level it was like trying to drum up enthusiasm for watching the growth of a radish. Thomas Merton was asked once if he felt deprived of news since, as a monk, he didn’t have regular access to newspapers or radios or television, and he answered that when World War III started someone would surely tell him.

A third world war is not necessarily the best criterion, but there is a good point here. When I see people spending every free moment on a cell phone, or think of how much time one can waste hopping from one Web site to another (I know because I’ve done it), it seems a shared madness. In a world already full of distractions we’ve managed to take on even more—we’ve hit the mother lode.

I admire much of what I encounter on the Internet. Andrew Sullivan’s site is one I visit every day, and he is one of many fine writers who concentrate their efforts on the Web; but does he never just sit down and know some deep and quiet time, which seems to me to be a human necessity? I appreciate his work and would miss it in its absence, but living a life that means jumping from one opinion to another all the time must be even more cluttered and noisy than the first days of the yellow press were.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate much of what I encounter on the Web, and the Times Web site, with its ability to bring us the most current news, makes it clear why the future of news is not likely to be on newsprint. Magazines are a more leisurely medium, and more likely to stay with us. The New Yorker is as good as it ever was; the New York Review of Books is still excellent. I can see them holding their current paper forms forever. They don’t generate the sense of urgency newspapers do—often falsely. Think of the newspaper stories from Iraq about “uncertainty”—well, yeah.

So I’ve been cutting down on newspapers and the Internet. I try to stick to no more than thirty minutes a day on the computer. I usually can, and won’t be legalistic about it, but when I have to go beyond that I try not to get sidetracked into the idle browsing that really is distracting. This isn’t like wandering through the stacks in an old library, because you have neither the physical nor the public dimensions of that aimless and delightful activity. This is a new kind of thing, with good and bad aspects. The Times recently offered this accurate assessment from the late novelist J. G. Ballard:

Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined the effects the Internet could have: entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper.... There’s a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry, not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.

This way of getting information is changing the way we think, the way we pay attention. Socrates worried that writing things down would weaken memory, and he was probably right. Maybe we will lose something and gain little in this new transformation. We will certainly continue to be tempted to distract ourselves. We need some safeguards. Maybe the rule should be: If you can do it in your pajamas, don’t. That would cover Hugh Hefner, escaped patients, and lots of bloggers.

The madness in all of this—excessive newspaper reading, surfing the Internet, listening to even the most intelligent talk radio—is the notion that the next thing you hear might be what you were looking for all along, the idea that this moment, the one you are in right now, could never be the right one.

Published in the 2009-05-22 issue: 
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John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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Of Monks & Madmen

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