Do you ever feel like there’s too much noise? Noise from the TV, the radio, the newspaper, the blogosphere, the experts, status updates, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Wikipedia. How do you tune it out? How do you escape the information overload and just…be? I’m finding it harder today than I did last year, and I expect that it will get harder still.
My iPhone is often glued to my hand, allowing me to google every passing whim—the weather, upcoming concerts, recipes, grammar rules. I take whatever the search results hand me, often skimming over the important stuff to find exactly what I’m looking for, and file that little tid-bit away in my brain as “truth.” Long gone are the days of big fat encyclopedias, of grad school and doctorates as the only viable paths to intellectual prowess (read Penelope Trunk’s controversial post about why grad school is a bad idea). Now it’s all about re-invention, self-learning, and the next hot idea. There’s little time to focus on one thing and become really good at it. We have to diversify, stay current, know what’s happening everywhere, all of the time. It’s exhausting. I feel the internet buzzing in my ear while I sleep. My phone doubles as an alarm; the first thing I touch every day is a little plastic device that connects me to the world, reminding me that it’s time to tune in. Right now. First thing.
The soft glow of those miniature computer screens illuminate the faces of my friends, gathered around the dinner table. I’m guilty of it too. Someone wonders aloud, “When is that…? What’s the name of….?” And the automatic response is to find out, mid-bite. Like a Pavlovian dog, ask me a question and I will salivate and then get you the answer, stat. It isn’t as commonplace to wonder about things anymore, to make a bet, or shoot the shit. We all know the answers. Of course we do. The internet tells us so.
If I don’t check Facebook regularly, I feel like I’ll miss something huge. Maybe a friend is engaged, or sick, or having a baby. Maybe she went to Jamaica for the third time and I won’t see her photos of sea turtles and fabulous tans. Maybe I will fall off of the face of the earth.
And now, with apps like Social Reader and Social Video, I have to read and watch more. God forbid someone see something funny or smart or life changing and I miss it. So I click on the video link for “Boo, the Cutest Dog in the World Loves Wearing Shirts” and waste forty-four seconds of my life making sure that I am just as in tune with the zeitgeist as a friend of a friend of a friend whom I once exchanged two words with in a loud bar. Because we’re Facebook friends, and maybe she knows something that I don’t. Yet.
At times, I think about going back to an old fashioned alarm clock, turning my phone off for an hour each day, disabling my internet, and taking a hiatus from Facebook. But I realize that resistance is futile. Like it or not, we are falling further down the rabbit hole, and the people who refuse to jump will be like that old guy cursing and shaking his fist at the young hooligans.
We are living in a truly amazing time: revolutionary, fast moving, inter-connected. But I can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I was around, albeit briefly, before the internet became omnipresent. I know what it was like to exist without a constant state of connectedness, to be unplugged and naive. One day, I’ll tell my children about it: Mommy didn’t have a computer when she was your age. Can you imagine? Mommy read paper books and memorized phone numbers and looked things up in the dictionary.
Can you recall the days of signing into AOL, waiting patiently for the buzzing phone line to make a connection, then surfing slowly, patiently, eyes widening with wonder at all of the new things “out there”? Now, if the page doesn’t load in three seconds, I curse my Mac, contemplating the viability of throwing it out for a newer, faster model.
I fight valiantly to disconnect in my normal, every day life, taking the occasional weekend away from the computer, breaking the day’s activities into segments: thirty minutes blocks are set aside to answer messages, Pinterest is only allowed after 700 words have been written. But my successes are tiny and fail to break the cycle in any significant way. I need to get out of my comfort zone in order to get out of the information overload zone, which is one of the reasons I love to travel. No Wi-Fi in the hotel room? Perfect. An international data plan costs $100? Darn, I guess I won’t be able to check my email on the go.
While on vacation, I’ll log in once every couple of days to take care of necessary communications or to say, “Hi, we made it to South Africa. Here’s a picture of a monkey raiding our kitchen.” But for a few glorious days or weeks, I get to unglue that phone from my hand, think for myself, look at the world around me without the hindrance of eye strain, listen closely to what my traveling companions are saying, laugh more, eat better, pay attention, and tune into my life instead of the TV. I can say, with a sigh of relief, “Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Roboto. I don’t need your information overload.” Not right now. Not first thing.