10.31.11

Addicted to inputs

Posted in Society at 11:27 by RjZ

I spent quite a bit of time last year alone. Alone on airplanes, alone in my tiny apartment in Frankfurt for weeks on end, alone running along trails passing fellow joggers with earbuds in their ears, running to their own inspirational soundtrack. To fill all that alone time, I watched a few more movies than normal, I read many more books that usual and stuffed my own ears with podcasts that I found interesting. I tried running with music or more podcasts, but I didn’t like carrying my iPhone (too heavy) and found the distraction took away from just listening to my struggle for breath while running.

A great deal of my time was spent silently reading, yet I still think I am typical of the information overload that modern western society is guilty of. We’ve seen the evidence: connected smartphones dunked in toilets because their owners couldn’t bare to be without them for a few minutes; constant texting among friends who might very well be standing right next to each other; netflix streaming movies from iPad to TV without a break in the action. People travel everywhere with earbuds in ears, blocking out sounds and communication with thier environment and filling their heads nearly non-stop with information or entertainment, even to the exclusion of interraction. Reading a few extra books doesn’t look so bad, but I was exhibiting the same symptons.

So who cares? Well, after drinking all this information from a firehose for three weeks at a time, I’d come home to friends and open the nozzle on them, sharing all this new found knowledge. Of course, I hadn’t taken any time to figure out what all meant, and no one listening to me could either. Instead of making communication more interesting, I’d made it more cumbersome, drowning in all that media. One solution is summed up in a bumper sticker: Kill Your TV. I don’t agree. TV is often very good, and even the mind-candy we find there often contains some pretty fascinating nuggets. (I’m amazed about how much people seem to know about crime scene investigation these days.) “Kill your tv” gets to only part of the problem.

In order to deal with this onslaught of knowledge, thoughts, ideas, and entertainment, we’re faced with a choice, we either limit, or just skim the surface. Why are people seriously having a text message exchange that goes “what r u up to?” “nothin. sitting on the couch?” Perhaps because have room for little else. Our brains are so busy with video games and netflix queus, news casts, and planning dinner, there just ins’t much capacity to have a conversation managed by the tiny keys of a smart phone. Why is most everything on television be so shallow? Why are movies so repetitive? Why are the most popular youtube.com clips no more than 30 seconds? Could it be that, faced with all this information, we only have the bandwidth left to process the bullet points?

Back in university one of my favorite courses was electro-magnetic theory (E&M). (I hear it’s cool to be a nerd nowadays.) It was a two-semester course and I remember being absolutely amazed at how lowly equations for volts and magnets could somehow, magically, yield the a constant for the speed of light. (Come on, isn’t that an unexpected result?) Anyway, at the end of the first semester, I hadn’t done very well. I’d been to every class and found it interesting and all, but I barely passed the final and couldn’t seem to actually understand all the math. Next semester came around, and, ready or not, E&M 2 expects a thorough understanding of whatever you learned in E&M 1. In spite of my sub-par performance a few months ago, I found myself actually following, somehow knowing what we’d been taught lo a semester ago. It sank in. I simply needed some time to process, analyze, synthesize, and there it was, a below average final exam in E&M turned out to be a pretty good base to keep learning more.

The alternative to dumbing down, is simply to turn off the spigot now and then. Fight the boredom. Maybe being alone with your thoughts (in the bathroom) isn’t so terrifying. When faced with all this downtime in Frankfurt, I felt almost desparate to keep the inputs going, even if they were low key, reading style. Reading, watching, listening, they’re addictive habits for our big brains, brains that demand stimulation. Except, feeding the habit winds up being counter productive; causing us to stimulate with less and less interesting stuff, just to keep the neurons firing. Instead, we can keep our neurons happy just as easily if we jet let our brains alone for a little while. Maybe, go for a run (or whatever you do that requires very little mental effort) without the earbuds in and just listen to your breathing and the stamping of your feet. You might just learn something.

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