Just over a hundred years ago, human knowledge was doubling every century. By the end of World War II it was doubling every 25 years. Today on average, information doubles every 13 months, but in the world of the Internet it can double within 12 hours.
We live in an age of exponential information, where the answer, or at least an answer to almost any question is just a few keystrokes away, where the perceived solution to many social problems is more education, and where the accusation of being ignorant is one of the greatest slights.
But an increase in data has also brought with it the problem of information overload. As Paul Hemp writes for the Harvard Business Review,
“Content rushes at us in countless formats: text messages and Twitter tweets on our cell phones. Facebook friend alerts, and voice mail on our BlackBerrys. Instant messages and direct-marketing sales pitches (no longer limited by the cost of postage) on our desktop computers. Not to mention the ultimate killer app: e-mail. Meanwhile, we’re drawn toward information that in the past didn’t exist or that we didn’t have access to but, now that it’s available, we dare not ignore. Online research reports and industry data. Blogs written by colleagues or by executives at rival companies. Wikis and discussion forums on topics we’re following. The corporate intranet. The latest banal musings of friends in our social networks.
But while an increase in information could be considered a morally neutral phenomenon by some, it has brought with it the rise of a troubling trend: the need to be “in the know”:
“Of course, not everyone feels overwhelmed by the torrent of information. Some are stimulated by it. But that raises the specter of…[cue scary music]…information addiction. According to a 2008 AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users in the United States, 46% were “hooked” on e-mail. Nearly 60% of everyone surveyed checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15% checked it in church, and 11% had hidden the fact that they were checking it from a spouse or other family member. The tendency of always-available information to blur the boundaries between work and home can affect our personal lives in unexpected ways.
What’s worse is that this constant barrage, coupled with an addictive need to process it, is often leading to detrimental effects. Hemp elaborates:
“Researchers say that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every e-mail message—can deplete and demoralize you. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention-deficit disorders, argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls ‘attention deficit trait,’ with characteristics similar to those of the genetically based disorder. Author Linda Stone, who coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ to describe the mental state of today’s knowledge workers, says she’s now noticing—get this—’e-mail apnea’: the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when people tackle their e-mail.
I mention all this because I’ve found them to be true in my own life. Like many of us, I’ve found myself scrolling through Facebook or Twitter when I should be focusing on a project. I’ve faced the temptation to quickly look at my phone while at dinner or out socializing with friends. And who hasn’t gone to the bathroom so we could have a few moments of peace with Instagram? Increasingly, I’ve felt the guilt of an addict who knows they probably need to stop but doesn’t know how or doesn’t quite want to.
What emerges from this picture is a Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with information. And beyond the noted psychological and physical effects pointed out by Hemp, this has led me to ponder the question: is there is deeper spiritual malady occurring here? Is our cyclical relationship of needing to know but being negatively impacted by the process of knowing leading us further away from God, and further away from our own humanity?
It occurs to me that the problem here is a very old one, in fact, it goes back to the very beginning.
In the opening chapters of the Bible, in the Jewish-Christian origin story of mankind, Adam and Eve are created perfect and good and given free rein of the garden of Eden, all except one tree, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some translators have pointed out that the phrase “Good and Evil” is a figure of speech known as a merism, a pairing of opposites that is designed to represent everything in between. In other words, the tree represents omniscience, the knowledge of everything, a characteristic traditionally ascribed to God alone.
In this understanding, the prohibition of eating from the tree is a reminder from God regarding the hierarchy of the created order. God is pointing out to Adam and Eve that they are finite creatures and he is the infinite Creator.
Then enters the tempting serpent into the story and he seduces Eve. He paints God as a stingy overlord, holding out on his creatures, saving the best for himself. The serpents says that in eating the fruit, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil,” knowing everything.
Now, whether you believe the story to be literally true or a myth with an important lesson, there is something here that resonates with human history and our experience: the idea of forbidden, trans-temporal knowledge and power and the fate of those who recklessly pursue it. At every stage of human progress there have been those who questioned: how much is too much? Some of them have been simple curmudgeons, but some have had the wisdom to see the self-destructive tendencies of the human heart. They’ve recognized that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, or as St. Paul wrote, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”.
Comparing the Fall of humanity to addictively scrolling through your Facebook feed may seem a bit much, but I believe they exist on the same spectrum. They both ignore the fact that there is happiness in being limited to time and place (a foreign sounding sentiment in today’s age of “be whatever you want to be”). If nothing else, the impacts of information addiction speak for themselves, pointing to trends that lead away from human flourishing and growth. I know for myself, I often reach the point where I feel like Derek Webb’s protagonist in his song “I Feel Everything”:
I cannot hear because I hear anything
I cannot see because I see everything
I cannot feel because I feel everything
A perfect example is the media cycle that kicks in every time a major tragedy happens in this country. In such moments I’m torn between the desire to know every developing detail and opinion, and my awareness of the types of politicization and dehumanizing arguments that take place round the clock for several days after. We often flock to social media during tragedy to gain information, but do we leave with true understanding, deeper empathy, or further wisdom?
I’ve sometimes fantasized that it would be good in such situations, after some basic information about the tragedy is shared, to have a temporary moratorium on any further communication. We’d have to think and pray about it, perhaps have conversations with our families. We wouldn’t need to know every newly developing minor detail or every one of our friend’s political opinions related the issue in order to understand that something tragic had happened. We could truly feel because we wouldn’t be faced with feeling everything. As comedian Louis C.K. observes in a now famous YouTube clip, our information consumption and proliferation is often used as a way to escape feeling.
Where does our current trajectory lead us? The poet T.S. Eliot, sitting on the cusp of the Information Age, already had an idea, which he expressed in “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
Perhaps in remembering that we are dust we can begin to regain the life we have lost in information.