TMI

How the internet kills wonder and adventure.

The problem of the Internet, and also its great attraction, is TMI; Too Much Information. I’m not referring to porn, scams, hackers, or the opportunities for plagiarism on college term papers. I mean the kind of information that, because of its volume, creates the illusion of being full of meaning, and thereby undermines the quality of our lives.

In two minutes of Google searching, I can discover a lot that my parents would never have been able to know at my age. When I feel guilty for eating a piece of chocolate cake, I can look up the number of calories I have just consumed. And speaking of chocolate cake, with a few more clicks, I can find archives full of thousands of recipes for every form of chocolate cake. Ninety-five percent of them are probably mediocre, but the other 5% claim to be recipes for the best chocolate cake in the world.

I have easy access to information about what my friends are up to. I can read all the sensational news stories, updated around the clock, almost as soon as each event (earth-shaking or otherwise) happens. News websites are black holes; you can follow one link to another ad infinitum. When I’m done, I might be depressed about the state of mankind, but at least I feel satisfied that I have dutifully kept up with current events.

I can even go online to find out about the future. Weather.com tells me what tomorrow’s weather will be like, down to the hour. Babyzone.com will tell me what my baby is supposed to be up to at each stage of his development. Right now, at four months, he should be grabbing things, rolling over, trying to sit up, and smiling often. So far he’s on target, if not slightly ahead of schedule. Does this make me a happy mommy? Not really. I begin to feel closed in by these predictions and catch myself eyeing my child as though he is a baby robot that someone has all mapped out.

Might I be happier if I had some space to wonder?

Information overload is addictive. You can get a kind of euphoria from learning fact after fact, strengthening that feeling of control that keeps you coming back. We continually make the mistake of Adam and Eve–believing that more knowledge is the thing we’re missing, the thing that will validate our existence, bestow meaning on our lives. People believed this before the Internet existed, but the Web has made possible a frenzy of knowledge-gathering.

My son isn’t napping well. I Google “baby nap problems” and spend an hour scrounging among a hundred different pieces of advice on baby schedules and sleep problems. I leave the computer feeling that euphoric illusion of control, delighted with my newfound power over my baby’s troubles and my own day. That is, until I encounter the next nap problem.

What would happen if I didn’t know what temperature it was going to be tomorrow at 10 a.m. and had to walk outside prepared for a weather adventure? What would happen if I was surprised by my child’s latest accomplishments? If I couldn’t find out how many calories are in that burrito I plan to have for dinner? If I didn’t know what my friends and acquaintances have been up to today? If I had to wait a few days to find out the results of the latest primary?

I would feel the vertigo of the unknown stretching around me. Each of my son’s new milestones would probably startle and amaze me as much as they do him. I might have to enjoy that burrito, without worrying over the unknowable consequences. I might have to pick up my phone or write a letter to establish some meaningful contact with my friends. And I might have to recognize the news for what it is—interesting stories, most of which hardly affect the present moment of my life.

I wonder if it is better to live without knowing some things. Knowledge is not bad, and ignorance is not desirable. But craving that illusion of control is dangerous, because we really have very little control over our lives, our children’s naps, or world events. We can’t look to knowledge or control for happiness, or we will be forever looking. The need for control, the craving to see into the future, can also close our world into boredom. Maybe the vertiginous life is a more interesting one. Maybe it allows more room for Christian faith. My plan is to use the Internet less for a while and see for myself.

1 Comment

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    November 25, 2013

    Mary Beth Baker

    You raise a really good point, especially about wonder and “adventure.” I hadn’t thought of it in terms of control, but you’re absolutely right. In the course of my work, I’ve been researching the “Internet of Things,” and found myself wondering something similar. What’s the point of experiencing anything if you can scan it all with a smartphone to “learn more about it”? (Apparently we’ll even be able to do that with people eventually.) It cheapens — flattens — the whole human experience.