When the Tree of Knowledge Bears No Fruit: Pursuing a Life Less Clicked-Through
The library at my college was a brick building with plenty of charm on the outside and plenty of sterile metal on the inside. Metal shelves and metal carts held stacks of worn, discolored, plastic-wrapped books. What the library lacked in charm it made up for in knowledge. Walking through row after row of books, the possibility of vast information locked away in each cloth-bound package would press itself upon me as a tangible force.
I relished this feeling, partially because I knew I could never, ever read all of the books in the library. So I would wind my way through the maze, enjoying the immense potential of it all, and then find the corner with the information I needed. I’d pluck a book here and a book there. My arms would grow heavy with a teetering tower them. I knew it was time to stop browsing and get down to the work when I simply couldn't carry any more books.
And then the internet happened.
The internet is a giant, invisible library, whose height and breadth and width cannot be seen because it has been shrunk into microscopic zeroes and ones and then folded into a large, empty search bar with a blinking black line that hypnotizes you with possibility. What do you want to know? Come, see what you can learn.
And I. Always. Bite. Yes, I do want to try that #trending dish. And I would like to know if my toddler is ready to potty train (there’s a quiz for that). Come to think of it, I’m not sure if I’m living my thirties to their fullest and I would like to lose ten pounds and I’m not sure why social media makes me cry. Please, internet, explain it to me. Explain it all!
I know cable companies swear they are sending the internet to my home through that little black box, but sometimes I feel like the internet is actually using my person as a conduit. Somehow, I believe I am capable of reading everything that piques my interest on the internet and I’m terrified of the thought that I might miss any piece of the internet pie. I have... FOMO. I click and click and click and never feel like I’ve read enough.
There is an article on the internet that explained my problem to me (Good thing I clicked that one. Hello, irony.) I am suffering from infobesity, which is as flattering as it sounds. When I spend time online, I’m bombarded with information: from ads; to the search results that bring up millions of blue hyperlinks; to my Instagram feed where yet another blogger is urging me to “click the link in bio.”
My brain is telling me that it’s too much, but I don’t listen because I want to read all the blog posts, especially when they are so temptingly vapid, like “How I Actually Kept Eating Paleo Even Though Bread is My Religion.” I need to know these things, people. What if I don’t read that one blog post and it’s the one blog post that could have changed my life? What if I don’t read “Ten Ways to Decrease Anxiety” and then I spend the rest of my life anxious because I didn’t find out about that one thing that gets rid of anxiety forever? This could totally happen.
The unfortunate result of infobesity is a failure to act; while most of the research I do on the internet is intended to prepare me to take action (cook healthier recipes, lose weight, teach myself to dance), I find instead that it paralyzes me. In his book Enough, British journalist John Naish offers an explanation for this paralysis. “We are so wired to gather information,” he writes, “that often we no longer do anything useful with it. Instead of pausing to sift our intake for relevance and quality, the daily diet of prurient, profound, confusing and conflicting information gets chucked onto a mental ash-heap of things vaguely comprehended. Then we rush to try to make sense of it all…by getting more.”
I saw myself in this description, stuck to the internet like glue, trying to matrix-style absorb all the information in the world with the noble intention of using it. Instead, I freeze up and become anxious or depressed, leading me to bandage my wound with the very weapon that inflicted it. So, why do I get on the internet again?
This is the hard truth: the problem is not the internet’s fault. As much as I would like to blame this century’s most popular scapegoat (What are we? An excessively cantankerous Walter Matthau collective?), I can’t in good conscience foist the blame on something or someone else. It lies squarely at my feet.
True, the internet is overwhelming, has millions of results for anything you could possibly want to Google, is flooded with low-quality content based on driving traffic to sites or selling something (Everyone is selling something!) but I’m the consumer. I can’t blame the milk chocolate toffee chip bar I ingest for the weight I gain. I’m the one who ate it. The internet is never going to tell me that I have enough information. That is not its job. Just like my gym is never going to tell me that I’m healthy enough and I can quit. That’s a personal decision I have to make.It’s freeing and fantastic that I don’t have to try to change the internet. That’s a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. I have control over this problem because it lies within myself. But where? What can I do the next time I feel the urge to binge on internet information? The solution is both simple and complex. I must change the lie that “I don’t have enough information” to the truth, that I actually do.
In an article titled “Death by Information,” author Paul Hemp applauds Jerry Michalski, an independent social media consultant, for managing information overload so well. Michalski’s secret? “Trust your community to filter and flow the right things to you when you need them.” Therapist Rebecca Bass-Ching echoes this solution with a warning that “Infobesity keeps you from trusting yourself, your faith and the inner circle of people who have earned the right to speak into your life.”
In order to gain control over my infobesity, I have to trust that I have the right information and that it's enough. I have to trust that if I need to know something, a friend will send me a hyperlink or I can do some quick and focused research to learn just enough. I have to trust myself and my tribe. Everything else is, as they say, "extra."
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” So I’m learning to desire less internet, not because the internet is toxic and is slowly melting my brain, but because my toxic relationship with information is absorbing my life in the form of minutes lost in the pursuit of more.
By all means, keep filling up the library. Keep writing those blog posts and those incredibly insightful articles about infobesity; keep urging people to read and learn more; keep filling up the infinite space with information. I’m learning to be satisfied with my small stack of information, while still appreciating the beautiful expanse of knowledge stretching out endlessly all around me. It’s less, but surprisingly, it’s enough. I know from experience not to take out more than I can carry.
This piece is Part 2 in a series of essays on dialing down the volume in our digital spheres. You can find Part 1 on "How to Really Be Present" right here.