Ever checked email twice in the same minute? Stayed up till dawn to monitor every up- and down-tic in the Asian markets? Googled yourself — and read all the links — on a beautiful Sunday morning when you could be communing with nature?
Thank God I had a friendly psychoanalyst and not one of those strict Freudians who specialize in withholding information about themselves. Like Gabriel Byrne’s Dr. Paul Weston in the astonishing HBO series “In Treatment,” she was willing to answer basic questions, provided we first tried to understand why I was asking. But once — and only once — she shared more than I wanted to know, causing me to blurt, “Goddamnit, you’re not giving me enough deprivation.”
Information overload — and its fallout — is hardly a new phenomenon. Four hundred years ago, the French scholar/critic Adrien Baillet observed, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”
Nowadays, our exposure to new information — the good, the bad, and the just plain wrong — is expanding geometrically. During the past fifteen years, the twenty-four/seven cable news cycle and, more important, the digital revolution — with email and Google leading the way — have added trillions of bits of consumable data to what had already become an overwhelming glut of news, commentary and pure junk. (And speaking of junk, no less a personage than Google CEO Eric Schmidt has referred to the Internet as a “cesspool of misinformation.” )
More recently Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and other phenomena — you know you’re in trouble when a sixty-five year-old colleague uses “YouTube” as a verb — are signing up tens of millions of folks committed to sharing everything from the precise location of a mosquito bite to which character they most identify with from the third season of “The Flying Nun.”
Last week, when Slate.com ran a deadpan story about “Flutter,” which out-tweets Twitter by limiting messages to twenty-six characters — the number of letters in the alphabet — it wasn’t hard to believe that reality had once again outstripped satire.
Webster’s 2006 word of the year was “crackberry,” which has nothing to do with a drugged-out piece of fruit. (As for fruit, do we really need to puzzle over dozens of different kinds of apples at the grocery? Can’t red, green and the occasional Golden Delicious suffice?) In AOL’s fourth annual email addiction survey — in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re also getting hooked on up-to-the-minute surveys — forty-six percent of respondents in the cities polled were identified as email addicts. (Fun stat: For eighteen percent of respondents, vigilance with their own messages wasn’t enough. They also regularly check someone else’s email!)
The effects of information overload can be consequential, even disastrous. In addition to taking up time you’ll never get back, “analysis paralysis” — the failure to act due to over-thought — has become a common phrase in sports and other realms where quick response is a must. A tennis player receiving a 100 mph serve is sure to lose the point if his mind is poring over what to do next as the ball whizzes by.
Much has been written about how to deal with email and Internet addiction, but most advice boils down to this: when you feel the urge, get away from electronic devices and focus on something that puts you in the moment, like meditation, gardening, or alphabetizing your baseball card collection. If the compulsion persists, a technique the addiction expert Dr. Alan Marlatt calls “surfing the urge” might help. Sit still and bring your attention to your breath — taking deep in- and out-breaths — while watching the physical sensations of the urge come and go. If you falter, don’t judge yourself. Try again. It will get easier over time.
Why do we crave new information the instant it becomes available? Is it like eating ice cream, where the moment you taste that first heavenly spoonful you start shoveling the next bite into your mouth? Is a demonic strain of evolutionary psychology taking hold? Are we hungry for an elusive, vital piece of knowledge or new light to be shed on an age-old question?
In the lowest depths of the Sea, deprived of sunlight, creatures like the glowing sucker octopus create their own light through a process called bioluminescence. They don’t need email or Twitter. And, at least some of the time, neither do we.