E-Overload: The More You Know, the Less It Matters

The other night when I was hard at work—on my thesis, duh—I paused to consider the serious state of the world, or at least the world as it appears on HuffingtonPost.com. The usual matters troubled me: The horrendously public disintegration of the marriage of once-presidential-hopeful John Edwards, the boatloads of snow the heavens were dumping on my friends and family in Washington, D.C., the stagnation of the health care bill in Congress, the calorie count of the Coop’s blueberry muffins.

The modern world had never seemed so disheartening or so high in saturated fat. I closed my MacBook Pro and pushed it away from me, suddenly displeased with the bevy of information at my fingertips. Whoever dreamed up the Internet twenty years ago clearly never thought about the consequences of providing free and fast information to the masses. Didn’t they know how depressing it would be?

There’s an old saying about how ignorance is bliss, how no news is the best news. Too often, we pity the pre-modern era, wondering sadly what it must have been like to live without the convenience of text messaging. We imagine with horror what life would be like if it took weeks instead of minutes to organize a game of flip-cup or send a suggestive note to a romantic interest. (“What are you up to in a month, girl?”)

Part of me is jealous of all those 18th-century Victorians and their epistolary lifestyle. Sure they spent much of their time consumed with heartsickness or typhoid, waiting in hopeful limbo for written word of their betrothal or of a cousin’s recovery from his sickbed. But at least when the news came, it really meant something. It was an event, not a minute’s exercise in procrastination.

I’d imagine that information, and life, was much more exciting in the days when it traveled slowly. Imagine the dramatic tension created when Columbus arrived by boat, or when Paul Revere came by horse, or when General Sherman took the South on foot. People had time to anticipate their arrival, and if I’ve learned anything from my Tantric Yoga PE course, it’s that anticipation heightens everything.

For all this talk of progress and expediency, the Internet and technology have really dulled our lives and brought out our worst. We are impatient because we know too much, and we know it too quickly. Our language and our relations with other beings have become informal to the point of making us all casually indifferent strangers. You don’t even have to bid goodbye to friends anymore—you can BRB and maybe TTYL. But who’ll be LOLing when we become digital robots, incapable of expressing real sentiments?

I’m worried that the more we abbreviate, the more we risk losing—and I’m not just talking about syllables. We are so obsessed with acquiring information while saving time that maybe we’ve lost some of our essential humanity. We’re losing the book to the e-reader and our souls to the cyberworld.

The real question is not whether we were better off in the technological dark ages, but whether we can return. Is there a way out of this madness? Can we close ourselves off from the World Wide Web? From cell phone service? From Gmail? Perhaps only when it rains or when the ITS Helpdesk is unmanned.

Short of an organized conspiracy to shut down the system of tubes and wires that rules over our lives, there is little likelihood that we’ll live to see the end of the Internet age. Those of us who long for simpler times will have to be content to remain informed members of a world where knowledge comes from a power cord.

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