Too much information

I’m reading things on the internet all wrong, apparently.

Why?

Well, I store articles. Actually, I do more than just store them, I re-read articles and sometimes even download the ones I really love and archive them in my ‘library’ folder in my iCloud drive so that if they ever disappear off the web or more somewhere else (as they are often want to do when a website gets upgraded and decides to change the URL of ALL of its posts rendering links invalid and annoying me no end…) I can still find them.

The friend who expressed outrage at my re-reading of web-based gems proclaimed, “there’s always so much new to read, why bother reading something you’ve read before? You already know what it says. The conversation will move on”. 

Fair point.

There is rather a lot to read, and I read A LOT. I’ve always read the paper in the morning, and now between news sites, twitter and the growing number of blogs that populate my feedly, my morning dose of catching up with the world’s conversation can take over an hour. But it’s important. Working in a community means being abreast of the conversations that are shaping people’s understanding of the world and the issues that are impacting them is invaluable. It also means its a good idea to have a vague idea about (or binge watch entire series of) the latest teenage netflix sensations.

So, why re-read?

Last year I read Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows‘. It’s one of those “this is your brain on the internet” books and was nominated for a Pulitzer a few years back. The book basically makes the argument, supported by various studies, that the internet is making us stupid (but in a few thousand more words than that). Carr is particularly worried about skim reading and our ever-decreasing attention spans and blames, amongst other things, the nature and pace of production of online content for this. Whilst people who know things are debating the truth in his claims of digitally enabled cognitive decline (like this LRB piece which notes the opposite might be true) I recognise some of my own fears in his argument.

I’m interested in how we can hold onto the kernels of wisdom we find in the things that we read, and by that I don’t mean letting words wash over us and stopping just long enough to package them into a 140 character bundle and send on to others for them to do the same. When the conveyor belt of the internet’s journalism engine delivers endless missives on its  eternal high speed setting, where is there room to sit with and truly explore ideas?

This afternoon I was teaching a text that I know well, really well. It’s my piece of text, my Bat Mitzvah portion. My student, a week from his Bar Mitzvah, confessed that he’s getting bored of the story. He has a portion that I love, its the story of twelve spies sent on a mission to see ‘the land’ and who return in disagreement. Ten think the land is impossible to inhabit and two think that its manageable. The ten manage to win over the community that sent them and as a result the community is punished and forced to wander in the wilderness. 40 years later, the people are allowed to go into the land. Nothing changes in those 40 years except for the people, the land remains the same but they return with a new generation who sees challenges in a different way.

Its the message of this story that cuts to the heart of why I re-read things. Whilst texts don’t change, our context does, and encountering ideas with a fresh pair of eyes can offer new insights, reflections and reactions. I want to hold onto writing that makes me think, and whilst the constant flow of newness online can create an exhausting pressure to consume, I’m holding onto my bookmarks and downloads as anchors in a sea of information!

Oh, and this is one of my favourite re-reads and the piece that sparked my interest in privacy and the world of information.

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