God’s Eye View

Posted: April 28, 2009 in Blogosphere, Consciousness, Culture, Health, Philosophy

Three different takes on an imaginary disease called information sickness piqued my interest. (Funny how web surfing so quickly develops into a morass of links investigated and discarded.) The earliest suggestion of such a disease comes from a 1981 novel by Ted Mooney called Easy Travel to Other Planets. I haven’t read the novel, but a manifestation of the disease is described here by Tom Frick. Apparently, regular people are periodically overcome by the daily information onslaught, the deluge of data demanding our attention, and are reduced to a quivering mass of jangled nerves and word salad. The absurdity is heightened by the gathering of gawkers on the sidewalk, where such nervous breakdowns are commonplace, and the adoption of a memory-elimination posture to purge excess information and regain normal mental function. The make-believe sickness is a metaphor for the loss of humanity in the Information Age, a notion that was perhaps just beginning to catch on in the 1980s.

Tom Frick goes on with considerable insight to say that the reality of information sickness is both better (individuals aren’t actually rendered gibbering idiots) and worse (the collective effect of information overload is an entire culture comprised of chittering fools who can’t participate meaningfully, culminating in an astonishing moral lassitude). That is also the conclusion of this YouTube video about Twitter. We expect thirteen-year-olds texting nonsense back and forth and celebrity websites to be devoid of content, and we tolerate them. Some may even revel in them. However, among adult social networking, consuming the same content-lite is rather tragic. Frick also notes the irony of generating even more information in the form of a blog post.

Dave Pollard also writes about information sickness here but from the perspective of a change agent, meaning that information is meaningful when it’s actionable and leads to substantive improvement. We’re plagued by information sickness as measured by how poorly we process information, including factors such as inattention and lack of context. He recommends adopting a sort of information ecology characterized by less overall information and selective attention to valuable information leading to real understanding and action. He compares our information diet to our food diet, which is governed by the dictum garbage in, garbage out.

My own take on information sickness, seeing as we are free to interpret the term individually in the absence of a generally agreed-upon definition, is quite different. Whereas most people have an inexhaustible appetite for entertainment, I have an almost inexhaustible appetite for information. This stems from a childhood ideal I adopted that once everything was properly and completely understood, the correct steps could be taken to operate the various systems of the world optimally and justly. It’s a childish notion, of course, and I’ve grown out of it, forced to admit that developing intellectual mastery of a subject is like chasing a chimera: the objective slips one’s grasp ever more effectively as expertise is acquired. But that doesn’t stop me from seeking understanding, which isn’t quite neurotic but might be a kind of sickness. I practice an active information ecology, restricting myself from pointless ephemera as much as possible.

Lately (the last few years), I’ve been drawn to a certain kind of book that attempts to provide a god’s eye view of a subject, such as history or metaphysics or general science. Such books can only be authored by people of immense interdisciplinary erudition, or at least those with the assistance of a formidable research team. Five such book spring to mind: Bill Bryson’s *A Short History of Nearly Everything, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his follow-up Collapse, John Reader’s Man on Earth (link includes my review), and Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience. I’m a slower reader than I’d like to admit, since I tend to pore over books, so it’s taken me some years to get through these books (among a variety of others). In fact, I acquired Reader’s book 20 years ago and only recently pulled it down to consider it. What these books have in common is a cohesive, overarching theme of taking a broad view of complex, interlocking fields then attempting to understand and explain them. Bryson’s is perhaps the most surprising, since he’s a travel and humor writer, not a historian or scientist. Wilson’s is the most ambitious, which its subtitle The Unity of Knowledge proclaims rather guilelessly though with good cause.

As this blog is foremost about cultural criticism, I would be remiss not to acknowledge two others: Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America and Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus. Both authors’ blogs are on my blogroll, and they both tell some unsettling truths, though from remarkably different perspectives. Several other similar books (unidentified) await my attention.

If I have a sickness, it’s that I’m less inclined toward the pleasure reading of fiction that mostly occupies those who still read, as opposed to those who consume video (TV and DVDs) almost exclusively, and I’m still waiting and preparing for the lightning bolt of omniscient understanding that I know will never come to decide it’s time to act. What action is required still eludes me, and if it’s in fact all pointless, difficult preparation for nought, my critics could easily be correct that I need to lighten up and enjoy myself more. But my need to know and understand trumps the desire of normal people to celebrate life in its fullness and frivolity.

  1. insomniac says:

    Howdy Brutus,

    I hear ya. I like to find that overview perspective. For the last 5 or 6 years i’ve been bonning up on systems theory, and such.

    Looking at info disease like an epidemic reveals its growth following power laws and acting pretty much like all networks in complex systems. Looking past the content, and seeing the flow patterns and cycles that mimic biological systems, gives us a common way to understand how complex systems grow.

    Biological systems run on a constant flood of information. What we have done is add an artificial flood of cultural information on top of the biological level and decreased our natural input, by walling ourselves off from the environment and ignoring intuition like the plague. 8)

    Disease? One way to look at it, but that leaves just about everybody infected. Maybe this is more like the cure… a flood of information with a minute homeopathic dose of truth hidden holographically in every bit.

    I also have been told to lighten up, but i am enjoying myself. I find a great deal of pleasure in the ironies of discovery. Some folks just have different ways of celebrating life.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Studies have shown (I remember reading this and my memory isn’t as dependable as my feelings)that love is a disease. People connect romantically under various delusions that they then need to perpetuate or else they fall out of love. Maintaining a delusion, according to the study, was symptomatic of mental illness.
    The argument might be logically correct but I disagree with it nonetheless. It depends, meaning it–like everything–is subjective. Certainly, I’ve known lovers who reinforced each other’s bad tendencies. That’s a sick love, imo. Or, it might come down to degrees. But I don’t agree that all love is by definition sick. Is all love delusional? Maybe. But then what isn’t?

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