Gum­ming up the works

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s column ap­pears in 30 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­ — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

I’m a de­tail guy. That’s what I do — I read tons of ma­te­rial, very fast, and re­mem­ber things. If you’re at my house and have been out for a smoke, I can tell you where you left your ci­garette pack­age, if I’ve walked past it even once. I know where the screw­drivers are, even the one that you left next to the freezer. (It’s a par­lour trick, not some­thing I’ve earned.)

I feel some­times like my head is packed with mu­sic, be­cause there are so many songs that I rec­og­nize in just a bar or two in — I’m far from alone in that. We are mar­velous ma­chines, able to store huge amount of in­for­ma­tion. So why is so much of it cat videos?

So, what am I get­ting at here? (Use­less knowl­edge No. 1 — there is a fish par­a­site that swims in through a fish’s gills, eats the fish’s tongue, and en­sconces it­self in the spot where the tongue used to be and then eats the fish’s food. Do not search out on­line videos.)

Well, maybe that we are, in our own way, high-per­for­mance cars that are driven on the street in­stead of the race­way. We’re de­signed to take reams of in­for­ma­tion, trans­form it, use it, store it, build on it. We have doc­tors who can take a slew of symp­toms, line them up, turn them around and come up with a di­ag­no­sis. Physi­cists who can draw up an un­seen uni­verse in their heads, and lit­er­ally make sense of it us­ing high-func­tion math­e­mat­ics and com­puter as­sis­tance. (Use­less knowl­edge No. 2 — I saw a video of a woman res­cu­ing a sunken os­prey in a pond, only to clearly rec­og­nize that she now had a bun­dle of sharp talons and beak walk­ing down a ca­noe pad­dle to­wards her.)

We’ve built a sys­tem that makes a vast amount of in­for­ma­tion im­me­di­ately avail­able at the touch of a but­ton, mean­ing that there are li­braries of in­for­ma­tion we no longer need to re­mem­ber, be­cause we can find it, sim­ply and fast. (Use­less knowl­edge No. 3 — this past weekend, a day-long Twit­ter bat­tle broke out over whether call­ing a man with an im­age of a lemon in his Twit­ter avatar “Lemon man” was bul­ly­ing or not.)

But to get back to the race­car anal­ogy: run a per­for­mance au­to­mo­bile at slow enough speeds, and all you’re re­ally go­ing to do is to gum it up. It’s hot and fast, not crawl to the cor­ner store.

I mean, it’s clear that the 24-hour news cy­cle is mak­ing ev­ery­one sloppy. How can it not? Ev­ery­one is work­ing to­wards the dead­line of “now.” Ru­mour rules, the facts change and sto­ries have to be re­cast. Things move to the left and to the right; it’s hard to dis­cern what’s ac­cu­rate.

What sort of elec­tri­cal work would you get if a con­di­tion of ev­ery job — even wiring a house — was that it had to be done by noon? There would be more elec­tri­cal fires, that’s for sure. (Use­less knowl­edge No. 4 — there’s a grow­ing prob­lem for gen­eral con­trac­tors that, thanks to home ren­o­va­tion shows, scores of peo­ple think a bath­room ren­o­va­tion takes half an hour.)

We are de­tun­ing our­selves. Faced with an over­load, the sim­ple is stick­ing with us, and our abil­ity to han­dle the com­plex is slip­ping away. (Use­less knowl­edge No. 5 — in the Sec­ond World War, air­craft used to drop metal­lic foil to con­fuse radar sys­tems about what they were see­ing. It was called chaff, pre­sum­ably in ref­er­ence to the difference be­tween valu­able ker­nels of wheat and the chaff of wheat stalks.)

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, the wheat and the chaff.

We’re get­ting it all, now. All of it, at warp speed. All of it, con­stantly in­ter­rupt­ing our con­cen­tra­tion, our very abil­ity to con­cen­trate.

The open road is gone, my friends.

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