We have ceased to communicate, for we speak in sound bites.
We have ceased to be ourselves, for we exist for the others’ gaze.
We have ceased to be original for we conform to the multitude’s demands.
Yet none is a more serious predicament than that…
We have ceased to learn, for we have become obsessed with information.
We live in the Era of Digital Flooding. We are drowning in the infinite information available on our smartphones and digital devices. Like magicians we touch a screen and the information comes flooding in. We are overwhelmed, mesmerized, dumbfounded. We don’t know what to touch or click next, we don’t know where to turn or what to make of all this. So we keep mindlessly searching and ceaselessly absorbing whatever this gargantuan parallel universe of information keeps throwing at us. By clicking one link after another, we oftentimes fall into a Wikipedia wormhole to find ourselves in some remote corner of an unknown galaxy, having forgotten our whence and whither! Yet …
Information is not learning.
Knowing facts is not learning.
Memorizing is not learning.
Learning is not the gathering and recording of information; it is the ordering of information. And ordering is not only sorting out, categorizing, and structuring: most importantly, it is finding the meaning of information, by interpreting and understanding it as well as by forming its connections with all else we already know. Learning is creating new mental pathways whereby the information has become meaningful and relevant to the rest of our knowledge and to the totality of our life.
For information to become useful, we must leave the field of information: Understanding and Meaning reside in a dimension that is outside of information itself! Just like the “Philosophy of Art,” which belongs to the field of Philosophy although its subject matter is Art (it examines Art from a distance), Understanding and Meaning lie beyond the information they analyze and interpret. You may know a million facts about WWII, but do you know its causes? how it came to be? what were its consequences? how it relates to the peace that has followed it? It is the answers to questions such as these that constitute the true significance of all the events that have transpired in history. All true knowledge is the product of understanding, meaning, and the mental interconnectedness of information.
Many know everything there is to know about fashion, but they do not know how to dress themselves. Others know about the details of the latest theater or film productions, yet they have never attended a staged play or rarely go to the movies to appreciate a great film. What is the use of their specialized knowledge if it unrelated to their lives as well as to Life itself. In the end, their knowledge is knowledge of subjects they neither really understand nor truly appreciate – such knowledge moves on the upper crust of superficiality and irrelevancy. Our contemporary world is full of such strange phenomena.
In 1803, when the owner’s son took over his father’s position, the London Times jumped from being four pages long (basically a huge folded sheet) to twelve. In an instant it tripled the number of news items it could hold and added much more information across a broad range of subjects. Probably it is this that marked the beginning of the Information Age: rather than succeeding the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age appeared contemporaneously with the former and has been imposing its steady mark stealthily and gradually ever since. The London Times, with its multiple sections and free inserted magazines, is now hundreds of pages long – not to mention its continually updated digital edition.
The London Times’ evolution is most relevant to our discussion, for today’s obsessive acquisition of information has become driven by huge numbers. The more information one is seen to gather, the more accomplished one seems to be to one’s peers. The Blinkist app, one of many, embodies this truism: This app summarizes a book in a few pages, claiming one can “read” one hundred non-fiction books in a month. Of course, “reading” one hundred books in a month is not reading a single book! For all this fast “reading” is simply the stripping of understanding and meaning from the books. Suddenly, all books seem to exist for the gathering of information, not for learning or for the enjoyment of reading. Many young people growing up in this digital age cannot distinguish between information and knowledge. Many do not even know the difference between learning the technique of passing an exam and actually understanding the subject matter of their examination! Therefore, we have young people entering universities who have only a very superficial understanding of the subject they are about to study, although they may have mastered both the skill of gathering information as well as the “nascent craft” of passing university entrance exams. The percentage of people with university degrees has skyrocketed in the last few decades, but has the number of truly educated people increased with it?
The most disturbing phenomenon in all of this is actually the recent glorification of those persons who have become experts in memorizing tons of information and then displaying their “knowledge” in public. Popular television programs such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Mastermind, and Jeopardy are promoting the idea that those who are great memorists and can keep in their short memory a plethora of useless information are to be admired and even rewarded for their special abilities. The skill of these people may be remarkable, yet the stealthily promoted idea that they represent the epitome of learning is not only utterly unfounded, but I would dare say it is dangerous. For it suggests to the hundreds of millions who watch these programs around the world that these people are somehow “educated” and their skill ought to be emulated. Yet the truth is much simpler, and even tautological: these people are simply good at winning TV shows – nothing more and nothing less. They may recall the exact date of a WWII battle, but ask them about the causes of WWII, and you will see most of them crumble.
The running after trivia is also clearly seen in another popular game of our times that supposedly tests the contestants’ learning: Trivial Pursuit. The game, as its name suggests, is actually trivial in two ways: it promotes both the acquisition of trivial knowledge as well as the triviality of competing for it! Seneca’s reference in On the Shortness of Life is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago:
It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Odysseus had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author, and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar. But now this vain passion for learning useless things has assailed the Romans also. In the last few days I heard someone telling who was the first Roman general to do this or that; Duilius was the first who won a naval battle, Curius Dentatus was the first who had elephants led in his triumph…There will be no profit in such knowledge, nevertheless it wins our attention by reason of the attractiveness of an empty subject.
The number of Odysseus’s rowers has simply been replaced with the number of the Kardashians’ escapades!
But the most trivial of all is the myriad of personal information that people share across social media. Digital flooding is at its highest in Facebook and Instagram, not to mention the smartphone messages and photos and videos that we ceaselessly send one another. Parents are posting every single supposedly important event in their babies’ lives … the first word, when she started walking, her first clever discovery. Many are busy uploading photos and videos, responding to comments, and then liking, sharing, posting heart emojis – they call this “communication,” or “exchanging info”; yet it is neither. People cannot interact with people any more, only with the digital facades that people use to replace their real identities. These adopted personalities – or to use the modern word, avatars – in the end replace the real person himself and become superficial empty masks substituting the real character and soul of the individual.
There are a few who even document every single hour of their lives on social platforms, as if the whole world is interested in knowing when they eat and what time they go to bed. Of course, one obvious reason why such people insist in documenting their lives’ trivia is that so many are willing not only to “follow” them, but even to encourage this behavior. The trivia are being commented on with trivial comments that give rise to more trivialities in a vicious circle that sustains itself through its own … inner power of triviality! The endless hours spent on such completely useless exchanges of information are taken from people’s precious time that could have been invested in either true learning or true living. In a sense, we are all returning to our grandma’s village of old, and are establishing a new digital village-mentality through which village-gossip has become globalized. The only difference from grandma’s real village is that now it is not our neighbors’ gaze that defines what we do and who we are, but the gaze of the whole world.
Nobody seems to know how to put the amazing gift of the infinite digital information that our privileged age provides us with to good use.
Nobody studies history nowadays, nor philosophy, psychology, sociology, geography, biology, astronomy.
Nobody reads serious books anymore – although more books are published than ever.
Nobody learns – all gather information.
Digital flooding is killing us.