TMI in our digital age

i think most people would agree that i am generally an embracer of technology and the use of technology to enrich work, lives, arts, &c. in middle school and high school i was the geek who was addicted to video games, excited to learn how to use computers, and spent hours logging on to BBS’s everywhere in the Pennsylvania area to chat, play online games, and the like. I’m an advocate of technology in classical music, having composed several works of music for live performer and an ‘intelligent’ computer that reacts to what’s being played or reacts to the performer breaking an infrared beam. In my job prior to my current one, I was part of a team of reporting and reporting system analysts who were very tech-saavy, and we were always enthusiastic about (as my boss liked to put it) “moving reporting into 21st century”, streamlining as many data points as we could so that the company could receive relevant data quickly, accurately, and with as little human intervention or manipulation as possible.

But there’s a distinction i make between technology that i feel serves as positive enrichment versus progress-hindering. A while back i wrote a reaction to the Robotic Drumstick Haptic Guidance System, and i still stand by its thesis that such a device is poorly conceived as a pedagogical tool and that anyone who uses this as the basis for their musical knowledge and understanding could become an excellent “note player” but would become a poor musician.

i’ve also gone off on why i further disliked iPods when they could start playing movies and i still find value in that stance, although i think it needs to be refined somewhat. There’s no doubt that sometimes kids need attention and sometimes a parent needs to focus on other things. Distractions are a good answer to that, but i think that distractions need to be approached cautiously, first in the kind of distraction involved (i like to think that some degree of cognitive distraction is better than nonsense distraction), and secondly in the mindset that distractions of that sort of nature should never be an excessive or complete answer to everything (like if the iPod runs out of battery during a long car ride, the parents have no idea what to do beacause they’ve never actually talked to their kid in the car before). In that sense, the use and/or abuse of technology has to do with degrees and where to define the threshold of something moving from enriching/harmless distraction to harmful and potential long-term negative effects.

And now there’s a new technology trend that i feel is teetering dangerously away from its initial positive enrichment to progress hindering and backwards thinking: too much accesible information.

In the decades in which the World Wide Web continued to develop and grow, there were various stages of mindsets. In the early days, it was a “i can find useful academic information” mindset. As the internet became more mainstream and information outside of academics started to gain presence on the web, the mindset evolved into, “I might be able to find some of the answers i need on the web.” And then in what i consider the post-Google era, the mindset evolved into, “I can find anything on the web!”, or slightly more sinister, “Why can’t i find everything on the web?”

in a lot of ways, i think the easy access to any sort of information or opinions and the ability for so many people to connect in ways that weren’t possible before is fantastic and has a lot of potential to be more on the positive enrichment side of things. the problem is that there’s as much useless information as there is useful information out on the internet, and the ability to pull up any information at any point can make it too easy for people to transfix themselves on trivial information that ultimately serves no real purpose, and with the recent surge of mobile internet trend set by Apple and the iPhone, people can now increase their habit of merrily finding out whatever they want whenever they want whether they need to or not.

Let’s take a hypothetical example and compare mentalities:

You’re walking in the park or in a long car ride or whatever with a friend and you’re discussing the three live action x-men movies. In trying to compare the three movies, you remember that in the last movie, Kitty Pryde has more of a spotlight role than the previous two movies and that triggers a question, “wasn’t Kitty Pryde played by a different actress in the second movie? maybe even the first?”

in today’s Mobile internet world, finding the answer to that is a snap. pull out your smartphone, go to IMDB or wikipedia, find the answer you’re looking for instantly.

in yesterday’s world of internet-houses-all-information, you have to wait until you’re in front of a computer to find the answer. So one of two things happens: a) after the long car ride, you remember that this was information you wanted to know, so you find a computer, find your answer, and receive satisfaction for having answered an unanswered question, or b) you completely forget that you were curious about this tidbit of trivia and the question never gets answered which is fine because you didn’t remember that you asked the question in the first place.

in the pre-internet era, finding the answer would be damned difficult. likely it would involve more thought than the information really warrants; trying to trigger a memory, calling up someone else who has seen the movies on the offchance that they know the answer, or something similar. And eventually in your head you discover the answer (or what you think is the answer) or else you let it go or shelve it for later and move on with your life.

What’s striking to me about all of these scenarios is that i feel that the end result doesn’t actually change anything or fulfill any sort of enrichment. Whether you discover the answer to that question or *any* trivia question or not, the path that your life is taking remains the same. You could say that now you know something that you didn’t, but that doesn’t say much about how well you will retain that information (and in a world where the information is readily at your fingertips, there is less incentive to retain it on your own) nor does it speak to the value of the information.

So then you may argue, “if the end result is the same, then why does it matter? If immediate access to the information is a different means to the same sort of end, then i don’t see the problem.”

The problem is two-fold:

First, the easier it is to discover useless information, the more useless information people will fill their lives with. In the above example, particularly with IMDB and wikipedia, it becomes too easy to start link-hopping to tangenting articles, statistics, and other random findings. Oh, that’s right, Kitty was played by Ellen Page in the last x-men movie. I wonder what else she was in? Ooooh, she was the one that was the lead role in Juno! I loved that movie! When did that come out again? oh, i didn’t know that John Malcovich produced it! That “Being John Malcovich” movie was so cool. Didn’t that have John Cusack in it?… and on and on and on, so that now a harmless curiosity with a simple ten second answer turns into a thirty-minute tangent filled with information that is likely forgotten a month later, and that thirty minutes could have been used in a different way. And sometimes that thirty minutes can turn into hours of wasted time.

Secondly, becoming used to a paradigm in which information is expected to be so accessible can resultingly cause a new kind of psychological anxiety when that information is no longer accessible or if a partiuclar piece of information is not easy to find. this is well parodied in the South Park episode Over Logging, and it’s also reminiscent of the reason why i decided a long time ago to never wear a wristwatch which i blogged about on oscillate in 2004:

many many years ago i wore a watch around my wrist and… I reached a point where i would look at the time every two minutes out of habit, and that evolved into a *need* to know what time it was every second. I remember distinctly the first time i forgot my watch or lost my watch and there was no time piece nearby. i was in a state of total panic. I felt so afraid and insecure and alone and kept on looking around everywhere for something or someone to tell me what time it was. After that i… vowed never to ever wear a wristwatch on a regular basis ever again, opting for some sort of pocket timekeeper instead. because of this, a) i’m a much more relaxed individual, and b) i’ve developed the skill of knowing pretty accurately what time it is when asked even if the last time i checked a watch was hours before.

While not exactly analagous, i think it’s a close enough resemblance: we’ve reached a point in our culture where the expectation of information is so great that any information gaps regardless of its value can cause stress.

Again, the issue i have isn’t really with the technology itself, it’s with how it’s being applied. And it’s something that i have to be particularly careful about because of my own addicition to information. i love absorbing a wide variety of information whether important or not, and it’s for this reason that i’ve determined that mobile internet and smartphones are something i need to keep out of my life or give myself strict restrictions on how and when it is used. i’ve developed enough bad internet habits as it is.

Originally posted on darkblog resonate. I prefer any thoughts or comments there.


  1. I recently decided that I should not be able to use my laptop anywhere, and set it up next to my desktop through a KVM. Now I can use my computer at my desk, and nowhere else. This boundary makes me feel more sane :-)

  2. Pingback:joining the iPhone revolution (with a tangent on music notation software) » darkblog resonate

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