It took awhile before the best novelists and social scientists started thinking about the unholy fusion of pop culture, 200 cable channels, the Information Age, Ipods, tablets, the Internet, cell phones, texts and Google, social media and video and camera phones and e-mail. It is clear we are all swimming in a vast sea of data and input and some people seem to be drowning in it. Empty vessels will be quickly filled up, their lives, ideas, anxieties and aspirations shaped by this invasive outside techno-driven world. We are continuously bombarded by information, some of it true, some false, some disturbing or destructive.
No idea lives for more than a nano-second, no thought can live by itself for that long. No cell phone lies quiet for long, bonging and buzzing with streams of messages, most about nothing. We are never turned off. Increasingly, we only listen to the information we can agree with, now that it can be transmitted into our homes and ears and eyes and heads all day long. We used to have three channels, not 300, and we left phones behind when we went to work or took a walk. Text messaging was not imagined.
Consider any Facebook comments page where growing numbers of people share the most intimate details of their lives throughout the day, and complete strangers are happy to offer running commentaries, advice, criticism and encouragement.
One of the reasons I loved David Foster Wallace, the late novelist, is that he saw the soul-killing impact of so much data on helpless human beings, even before the eruption in digital messaging and social media. In "Infinite Jest," one of his characters says all of this input is too much for him to bear and we see that it literally destroys him, as it nearly did Wallace. And he was just talking about TV.
Sometimes I think all of this new and old input is too much for me to bear or anyone to bear. Everyone I know who watches corporate cable news – Fox, CNN, MSNBC – for more than a few minutes a day is angry about something you can hear it in their voices, and the anger that lodges in their neural systems comes right back out of their mouths and darkens their psyches, as is so evident in their politics and e-mail messages.
Just watch the Clint Eastwood affair to see how everything is subsumed in eternal arguments that can't be won or lost. The humiliation of an elderly public figure – the only issue I care about – is quickly subsumed by rivers of input from the "left" and the "right." Any chance for empathy or humanity becomes just another argument in the nasty echo chamber that is our civic life. No one cares about Clint Eastwood, only about his ability to damage a political opponent. Or not. To me, if we can no longer see the struggle of this man to communicate that night, then we are losing our souls in data, whether President Obama ought be re-elected or not. We hate our enemies so much that there is no such thing as going too far. And here we are, fighting all week about an empty chair. We have lost our way.
We see again that we only listen to experts who tell us what we want to believe. Everyone else – every different or differing idea – can be instantly dismissed out of hand. This is the complete opposite of the Jeffersonian idea of democracy, a great mixing of different ideas that results in a mutual consensus. Without that, he warned, there is only stalemate, never solutions.
The result is a mental and cultural paralysis that is so clear in politics and other areas of our culture. So much input, so little of it positive or useful. Since no argument can be listened to or won, it is simply repeated over and over again, the absolute opposite of how democracies are supposed to work.
Why am I writing about this? Because I struggle with input and data every day of my life and I am trying to figure out how to live with it, as an artist and a writer. And the data just grow and grows. In my own life, I am blogging, taking videos, photos, publishing on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. What are the lines. When is it too much, in terms of what goes out and what comes in? I don't know.
Clearly, since the rise of so much input and imagery, people are edgier, angrier and more rigid. The country is an angrier place, and since no problems can be solved, hopelessness and confusion seems to grow.
Novelists and psychologists have long been mesmerized and horrified by the impact of television on the values, mood and lives of the people who watch a lot of it. The impact of the Internet seems dramatically more complex and intense.
I see this in my own world every day. For the first five years of my blog, I did not allow comments. These are my ideas, my thoughts, my problems, a monologue not a dialogue. Ideas could live for awhile without being questioned, advised, challenged, corrected, supported or denied. This was, I think, a major reason the blog grew. People had no choice but to consider what I was saying, agree or not (and many disagreed and still do.) And they seemed to like it. When I took a poll asking my readers if they wanted comments, more than 90 per cent said no.
Facebook has become an important tool for my work, a valued outlet, yet it also personifies Wallace's idea and my experience – all of this input is sometimes unbearable - sometimes too much to bear. When I mentioned wallpapering I got a half dozen messages warning me about the dangers of spraying – on my wrist, lungs, back, eyes. Take frequent rests, wash out my eyes, wear masks. Spraying water at a wall became something dangerous and disturbing.
Whenever I mention a dog, there is instantly a message pointing out that I didn't mention another one, and wondering why. If I don't mention a donkey every few days, people begin inquiring. They never feel they have to wait or can be left to wonder – they expect to know right away. And they expect me to tell them right away even though to answer all of these questions would occupy several people full-time. These are not questions any writer would ever be asked continuously. It is new ground.
Today it's Izzy. Last week it was Rose. Often, it's Orson. I am surprised at this monitoring of my words. In this new kind of community, there is an almost daily need to draw new boundaries. Nobody means any harm, it is what everyone sees every day, and the ubiquity of media and data – of input – change our ideas about what is appropriate, courteous or reasonable. Before the Internet or cable or e-mail, the writer E.B. White begged his readers to remember that there was one of him and 10,000 of them. There are that many people on my Facebook page most of the day and many thousands more using e-mail, Twitter or Tumblr. My publisher loves this. I do too, when a book comes out. Or when I want to gauge reaction to a photo or idea. I welcome interaction with my readers. Still…
Some people have suggested that I'm too sensitive, others that I set up these boundary issues by writing about my life in ways that are sometimes personal. Maybe so, but this is a dialogue and I will keep at it.
So here's the thing. Like Wallace, I love it, and I hate it. And both at the same time. This, I think, is just where all of you are. We are becoming dependent on this input, sometimes addicted to it, even as it is killing a part of us. Wallace was right about that also.
More importantly, many ideas are instantly drowned in data – the experiences of others, the arguments of others, the passions of others. Interactivity has deepened the idea that all conversations are two-way (at least) and ideas are quickly echoed off of the experiences of others. Because people can comment so quickly, they do. They do not have to think about what they say. On Facebook, neither do it. In a book, I do.
Many of these comments are written in praise, some in anger, but that is besides the point. Ideas are not absorbed, rarely considered for long. I see people every day who comment without even reading the posts they are commenting on. It is sometimes simply a reflex, not a communication. Many of the comments are thoughtful, meaningful, helpful. It is not one thing or another.
It seems to me that people drowning in data they don't really need or want. There is way too much information out there coming at us all of the time. Bad news pouring out of corporate, profit-driven media advances the non-stop idea that our lives are falling apart, our world coming to an end. Weather warnings and stock market alerts.
Those are the stories people quickly become addicted to. Alarm must be listened to, good news can be ignored. Arguments online, on blogs and cable have virtually destroyed our political system and polluted any kind of discussion about animals. People are proud to call themselves "left" or "right," "conservative" or "liberal," as if it is a badge of honor to think so narrowly about the world, is if there are one or two philosophies that cover it all. Alan Bloom called this the closing of the American mind. We no longer wish to talk to anyone but ourselves, to hear any idea that is not ours.
Any idea that seems to exist in contravention of one or the other is instantly and aggressively attacked and countered, neutralized and ignored. So no idea is heard or considered unless the recipient agrees with it. And I get angry e-mail every day from people projecting their own anger onto me.
I even see this in online reviews for my short story book "Dancing Dogs." The reviews have been great, but many persist in seeing these fictional stories as arguments, not stories to stroke one's imagination. One woman was outraged that there was a cat story, and panned the book. She only wants to read dog stories, she said. Another was horrified that the perspective of a dog I wrote about differed from the way she treats her dogs. She said the story was cruel, and she was enraged by it. It was interesting to see that many people reading books are losing sight of what fiction even is – all ideas are seen in the context of cable news. You must agree or disagree, and if you disagree, it must be bad, even evil. This has become the core ideology of politics, the reason I have withdrawn from it. And it is spreading throughout the culture.
I am drawn to the idea that too much data – smart phones, hours of bad TV, reality shows, texts, messages, images – is killing the minds and neural health of many people, shutting off the very notion of listening or receiving information, promulgating anger and rigidity and the idea of living in a community with common ground, seeing the world as a hopeful and promising place, for all of its problems. Few minds are strong enough to resist the cruel, graphic, de-civilizing and relentless Tsunami of data. We do, I think, come into the world as empty vessels. We have to think about what is filling us up.
I am learning to be much more careful about what I put into my cup. I don't want to be angry or rigid, or pigeonholed into simplistic ideologies. I want my ideas to breathe, live, to have a chance before they are engulfed, subsumed, ignored or overwhelmed. It is the challenge, I think, for anyone who wants to write in the modern world. Certainly, few writers who want to survive could withdraw from this opportunity to interact with so many readers – and buyers of books.
One way I have chosen to deal with this is to continuously set boundaries – tough when so many new people come through all the time. Still, people listen and respond. An exchange of ideas is possible. They listen to me and I listen to them, the seminal value of a real community. And I write about it. That is also what writers like Wallace – and me too – can choose to do. Explore the issue and think about it. I don't have a lot of answers. Maybe one of you does.
I don't intend to run from this challenge, or let too much data damage my mind. I want to share the experience and understand it.