Information Overload and Getting Old

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I was cleaning out old magazines and stopped to read about Empress Theodora in The New York Review of Books. Evidently much of history about Theodora comes from ancient gossip, and a new book puts things right. The past is like today. Procopius, an ancient writer we use to remember Theodora, would have loved Twitter and shaming. Trying to get an accurate picture of Byzantine court life, politics and actual events is extremely difficult. Real history is information overload, and most of accepted history are Tweets.

information-overload

Here’s the thing, I’m suffering from a monstrous hangover caused by information overload. I want to know everything and can’t. I don’t know why read magazines anymore, especially ones like The New York Review of Books, where their essays are comprehensive, written by extreme experts, that make me think I’m completely uneducated. Reading one issue feels like I’ve learned more history than all I studied in K-12 schools. And it hurts. Often I can only read one essay before my head seems like a fission bomb reaching critical mass.

But if I stop trying to learn, living feels like killing time watching television while waiting to die. I can’t win either way. I’m starting to wonder if internet reading isn’t shorting out my neural pathways. Mostly I headline graze. There’s got to be some kind of happy median between Ph.D. scholar and Tweet view of every topic.

Generally when I feel this way, I return to science fiction, a cozy little artificial reality I discovered in my youth. I used to think the science fiction universe was small enough to comprehend, but in the last week, I’ve discovered inflationary events have expanded it well beyond my limits of observation. Now I understand why people dwell on highly focused specialties. Being a generalist is impossible. That also explains why the human race is too stupid to survive. Our brains are too tiny to comprehend even a vague model of larger reality. Our politicians think in sound bites because that’s the limit of their ability. We disagree with them because our 140 character capacity sees the same reality differently.

Part of my overload agony comes from growing older and sensing my brain slowing down. I hate giving up on keeping up. Yet, I also realize to survive aging I must jettison what I can’t mentally carry. I have to discover a practical diet of information consumption. I need Marie Kondo to declutter my mind. And I need to stop beating myself up because I can’t lift knowledge I once easily pressed.

Dirty Harry revealed exquisite wisdom when he said, “A man must know his limitations.”

Since I’m retired I assume I have all the time in the world, so I should be able to keep up. But it doesn’t work that way. Every new fact requires time to digest. If I don’t think about what I’m learning I forget it immediately. And even when I do contemplate new insights, it appears my brain is erasing something old to squeeze in something new. I not getting ahead anymore. Reading an essay from The New York Review of Books gives the illusion I’m learning something significant, but it’s going to be gone after I go to sleep tonight. I hate that. I truly hate that. I’m living in The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

Currently, I can comfortably manage one book, one audiobook and two or three documentaries a week. I just can’t make myself finish magazine articles anymore, or even read longer news reports on the web. I graze web pages. I’m not sure if internet reading is good for me. I’ve learned it’s better to spend my mental energy on fewer topics. I waste too much time chasing too many subjects. Web surfing is a very pleasant diversion, letting me think that I’m keeping up with the world, but I’m fooling myself to believe I’m actually learning anything.

JWH

3 thoughts on “Information Overload and Getting Old”

  1. You have a knack of expressing what heaps of other people experience but cannot or do not articulate. I’m finding the balance between consumption and production has become harder to manage — but hey, as well as reading voraciously you produce more than 99% of people. I’m ready to “retire” from my business, and I think I’ll need a demanding project to keep me from falling down the tunnel of tweets. We’ll see. P.S. There’s a book on this topic busting to get out of your mind.

  2. Hi James

    I certainly feel overwhelmed, and I think retiring this year has exaggerated the feeling to some extent. I felt when I retired this year I would have an infinite amount of time to do and learn and generally follow my interests. But I don’t feel that way at all, I am more aware of the things I have not accomplished, Great Courses gathering dust, half finished blog posts, a huge to be read pile etc. Of course any stress is I feel is self induced, almost all deadlines or goals are really established solely by me. And as you say I have also succumbed to the need to bath in the sea of facile information that surrounds us which provides the illusion of activity without any effort. Charles Lamb wrote many lovely essays, in “The Superannuated Man” he discussed his retirement after 36 years as a clerk and his great wish to be free. Yet my further reading indicated that once retired he was never as happy or productive, so I guess while some technologies or circumstances change many of the challenges people face are as old as our culture. And when you add the diminished physical resources that I suspect have lead to the saying “youth is wasted on the young”, it can be a bit discouraging. However I have also noticed a number of my older friends seem to be thriving, keeping busy with projects or social groups or hobbies. My mother in law an artist began learning saxophone at 60, pottery at 70 and has now created a new process for silk screening in her 80’s as well as painting, reading, trips to the middle east and Iceland and maintaining a huge garden. I guess at this stage we may just have to pick our battles. I really enjoy your blog, not just for the SF content but also your willingness to share your experiences with your readers.

    Thanks for this.
    Guy

  3. You just have a lot of interests, Jim, and the reality is there is way too much info for anyone to be really well informed in more than a few areas. Even specialists in some fields, animal physiology for example, have to back up and take a 101 course in zoology for a review of the overview.

    I don’t expect so much of myself these days. I read what’s fun to read, learn a little and go on to wherever it leads – maybe a total switch in subjects. I ‘m just here to sample the many delights at the great buffet of life and learning. I enjoy it more that way.

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