The Smog of Data

The Smog of Data

I’ve been a bit baffled by some articles I’ve seen lately about this concept of information overload. Like this one, The Smog of Data, from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The general premise of the article is that because we have things like email and IM, the internet, the “library without walls” if you will, we are “losing the time and ability for contemplative thought”. If contemplative thought is the cornerstone of academics, and if current technology challenges our ability to engage in contemplative thought, then unplugging is critical for academics. Right?

I find this argument specious. If you let an academic loose in the Library of Congress, couldn’t she make the same argument? She was so lost in the miles of information spread out around her that she lost the ability to think contemplatively. There was simply too much information around her. She was drawn to leafing through completely irrelevant books and managed to completely avoid the ones that would further her career. How can you blame her? The books were right there.

People blame technology for the strangest things. Sure, if you want to be distracted from something, technology is a great way to be distracted. You can launch your IM program (or three or four, if you’re like me) and chat with your friends instead of thinking deep thoughts. You can open up your browser and check out baseball scores instead of reading a good book. You can post to message boards about some inane topic, download bit torrents of your favourite tv show, check out the newspaper headlines. You can jump to attention the moment you hear that friendly sound that means you have new email. Set your cellphone to ring and vibrate so you’ll know the moment anyone wants to talk to you. You can completely detach yourself from the process of higher thinking by focusing on the technology around you.

Who’s at fault here, technology, or you?

The last time I wanted to get completely detached from higher thinking, I got myself a puppy. Up at dawn for walks, up and down the stairs every couple of hours to encourage house training, playing with toys, walks at lunch, dinner, and in the evening. I read about dogs, thought about dogs, tried my hand at training; I shopped for doggy things. I met all the other people with dogs, made playdates, talked about dogs. Should I blame my dog for my vacation from higher thinking?

Technology doesn’t prevent us from doing anything. If we feel pressure to respond to email or to be on IM or to keep track of every minute change in the news or in our professions, that’s a sociological issue, not a technological issue. Why are we feeling that pressure? Is this the fault of the unrealistic expectations of the people around us? Are these are our own expectations of ourselves? Does playing with email and IM make us feel that we’re doing something useful when we’re actually not? Isn’t this often just a matter of being lazy and wanting to blame something other than themselves for our lack of advancement?

I’m critical of this line of thinking because I know that technology has the capacity foster contemplative thought more often than it restricts it. Take, for instance, this weblog. Because I keep this journal I am constantly looking for something to prod me into deeper contemplative thought. I rarely read anything without the idea that I may find something in it that I want to write about it. I read, I think, I consider, and then I write. In the writing I often circle around my own ideas, sometimes feeling that I came to the right conclusion, and sometimes feeling that I found the hole in the argument that convinces me otherwise. With this weblog I have a venue to express the ideas I encounter and the thoughts I have about them. Having that venue encourages me to create those thoughts in the first place. Being connected trains my brain to have something to add to the conversation.

So people feel distracted by email. In my experience, most people understand that you can’t expect someone to answer an email immediately. You have no idea what someone’s day is like; possibly they’re in meetings today, or have the day off, or are sick. I don’t know many people who wait around their inbox for an immediate response from someone to email they’ve just sent. Email is one of the least immediate technological media we have.

IM gets the finger next. Instant messaging has got to be the culprit; how can anyone be contemplative with an IM program open and running? With people’s chat windows popping up every few minutes asking questions? My goodness, our lives are so interrupted, how can we get any good thinking done?

Social constructivism 101: knowledge is best built in groups. How is it that academics can have a conversation about contemplative thought, about higher learning, without interrogating what they imagine that thinking has to look like? Since when does the best thinking happen when you’re alone?

We like this poetic image of the bearded, pipe-smoking gentleman in his hunting clothes wandering on the moor, basking in the damp countryside and thinking deep thoughts, but is this entirely realistic? Why is scholarly process envisioned this way?

What instant messaging has the capacity to provide is an instant seminar; when I really want to hash out an idea, I bounce it off my fellow techno-inspired academics. What idea is not the better one for having been hammered out between two (or more) intelligent people? Why is the process of communicating ideas so entirely separate from the process of generating them?

In sum: if you find you are too distracted by media to get any thinking done, unplug yourself and stop blaming technology for your inactivity. You always have that option. But please don’t presume that those of us who prefer to remain plugged in are somehow less capable of contemplation than you are. Some of us are built by the sum of our communications, pushed to further and deeper thought by interaction with others.

The “smog of data” for some is the sweet smell of inspiration to others.

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