In a 1974 proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation, Nam June Paik coined the term “information superhighway” to describe the power of laser beams to carry information. However, the term didn’t really take hold until the 1990s, when the information superhighway became the Internet. Today, it includes social media sites like Facebook and even this email you’ve just received.
At your fingertips, you have the ability to find out almost anything about any subject you find interesting. This information has allowed us to create a world where many of us can live in great comfort. We can adjust our home climate from a cell phone miles away. We can buy tickets on our computers to fly to the other side of the globe if we’d like to. And, of course, we can communicate with anyone who has a cell phone or computer. But has this made us happy? Or is there another side to it—stuffing our heads with information overload? Is it true that we really can’t get enough stuff, enough entertainment, enough information, enough of whatever it might be for our happiness?
We’re constantly being dazzled by alluring invitations, commercials, and emails to buy this or buy that. Speed is the watchword of the day: faster, better, and more stuff at your fingertips overnight, “just click here!” Yes, I admit, I’ve done that too. I’ve clicked invitations to buy things that I believed would be helpful and of value. But, really, what’s of the greatest value to us right now, today? Isn’t it spending quality time with those we love? Or even just spending some alone time where we can clear our heads a bit?
I love raking up leaves in the fall or looking up into the sky for the first snowflakes of the season to arrive. For me, what’s of value is chopping firewood and then later on those cozy evenings watching the embers glow and fade while falling asleep snuggled up with my wife. It’s getting up before the sun when the whole world seems asleep and listening for the first birds to sing their morning song. It’s feeding the dogs and watching them play. It’s seeing our cats licking each other’s fur. It’s viewing a star-studded sky. It’s playing music or writing a poem. It’s enjoying a hobby or even engaging in some sports activity. It’s living consciously, not being glued to some electronic device or hypnotized by a flat screen on a wall or desk.
I’m not against information. Certainly, information is helpful in learning any new skill. But having the tools and being consciously engaged in your life, not as a spectator but as a real participant, is what I believe gives life a greater richness.
Years ago, before I had a computer, if I wanted to learn something, I had to physically apprentice myself to a master who had perfected the skill that I was looking to learn. I once met a master luthier who made violins, and he was gracious enough to instruct me in his art. It wasn’t information overload: it was simply concentrating on doing one thing over and over again with intense concentration and precision. In other words, it was less about the information and more about being fully in the moment.
It took me an entire year to build the violin. While I had gained some education in this craft, the knowledge was minor compared to the experience. I felt a visceral joy, sense of accomplishment, and deep commitment to being present with each stroke of my thumb plane and as I selected the right pieces of aged maple and spruce, sanded, and applied the many coats of finish. I was merging the inside world with the outside world. The wood felt like it had become a part of me and I of it. This was a real spiritual experience!
So why isn’t all that information making us happy? Perhaps because of the tendency to block conscious awareness of this present moment and take us far away into the future or the past. Could it be a case of information constipation? Or maybe having too much going on at the same time? I suppose I really don’t need to know that, either.
It must be time for me to go for a walk.
Reflections from Turtle Lake.