Sunday, May 27, 2012

Read. Chew. Repeat.

Access to information, to texts, to opinions is a wonderful thing. We're a generation accustomed to push-button enlightenment on a whole range of topics ranging from Zen meditation to who-was-that-famous-woman-who-had-to-get-a-botched-lip-job-corrected-because-she-looked-like-she-was-smiling-all-the-time? We have self-appointed (and altruistic) sign posters who direct us to all sorts of interesting and entertaining material on the web. There are services that exist to separate the informational wheat from the chaff. All of this is over and above the content created by traditional media such as television and print.

A great swathe of people across the globe are information savvy and in a sense, empowered. This empowerment makes learning, growth and work possible. On any given day, I'd say that we're lucky and that I wouldn't switch to a simpler, less cluttered age for the world.    

But there are days I would give the world (or a substantial chunk of it) to actually be able to absorb all the information I have encountered. Those are the days on which the sheer variety and quantity of data I have accessed has me feeling sluggish and dazed.

Over the last week, with a little time on hand, I decided to monitor my information consumption and identify the onset of my mental lethargy. Two days into the experiment, the signs were all there. I'd read about the creation of the hand-sanitizer market in India, Einstein's words on kindness (via a favourite website), stumbled onto a debate about 'curating' links (via the same website), watched all the TV commercials released in a local market over the last 4 weeks, gone through a dozen Webby newsletters at one go, skimmed through articles about the fuel price hike and its implications, also skimmed over movie industry gossip, read an interview about neuroscience in late 19th century Vienna (and re-read it because I forgot it all rapidly), glanced at a cultural digest's list of infamous cinematic characters, eye-catching magazine covers and design breakthroughs for 2011. This was in addition to e-mails and data actually related to work. This isn't an exceptional amount of browsing by any standards - many people I know will (figuratively) cover substantially more informational ground than I do in the course of a day.

In spite of this, I felt a little overwhelmed and also frantic - for the life of me, I couldn't remember anything I'd read the previous week, even though I knew I'd found my Sunday newspaper's cover story interesting enough to spend 45 minutes with it. It felt exactly like a meal gone wrong - as though I'd nibbled at too many things at a buffet, culminating in an uncomfortable and dissatisfying fullness.  

The pundits have already proclaimed that like it or not, we live in an age of omnivorousness. Information and media must be consumed freely, without discrimination. This is the evolutionary demand of our times, the trait on the basis of which nature will/ will not select us. I know this, but even so, when it comes to information, I find myself wishing that I could exercise a rather old-fashioned virtue - abstinence.

As with eating, so with reading and seeking, I tell myself. Exercise self-control. Take bites. Chew. Slowly. Don't dig into something just because it is there - is it really all that necessary, or even good? Is it worth my time? Will it be memorable? Do I need to walk this one off? Isn't less really more?     

Maybe. Maybe not. I'm running the risk of being left behind in an old-school data bylane while nimbler, fitter minds and genes whiz past me (and mine) on an informational super-highway. How interesting that this uniquely twenty first century issue comes down to the simple mechanics of biting and digesting. I can only assume that evolution (or intelligent design, if you prefer) has an in-built capacity for humour. Or a cosmic tongue hidden in some cosmic cheek.  

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