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What If This is as Good as it Gets?

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Never has the world been so connected.  The Internet has brought us together in ways that have produced a collective consciousness akin to what two decades before was only science-fiction.  We’re a species that likes to communicate.  We communicate about everything, from world politics to what we had for lunch.  There are more non-fiction books published now than ever before, all promising an end to your depression, impotence, mediocrity, shyness, weight problems, and scary penmanship.  Whether it's surfing the web, hanging out at my local bookstore, or watching television, I am promised answers to all of my problems.  Most of these answers, I didn’t even realize I needed.  It’s all very Kafkaesque; I feel like I’m in either a Woody Allen or a David Lynch film.

However, what I’ve come to realize only recently is that no one is answering anything.  I begin my day reading the news and listening to Finneran’s Forum, a local, early-morning broadcast concerning all things Boston politics here on Boston’s WRKO.  I then work my way through the CNN, The Huffington Post, Politico, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Herald websites—in that order.  I listen to NPR’s late morning shows and then switch to Rush Limbaugh.  After Rush, it’s back to NPR while I read whatever magazines I have delivered:  Time, Improper Bostonian, The Atlantic, Wired, Newsweek…

I think you get the point:  I’m well-informed.  And by “well-informed,” I mean that I get my information from a myriad of sources in order to keep myself Zen. 

So would someone please tell me why I know absolutely nothing about almost everything?  Sure, I’m able to digest and metabolize the information I receive on a daily basis, but by the end of the day, I’m no better off for it.  I’ve spent fifteen hours reading and thinking and writing and then reading and thinking and writing some more…but nuthin’!

I’m the audience for minds who speak about all things political, social, cultural, religious, sexual, ethical.  And then, within those broad categories, it’s all about technology, physics, scientific research, political theory, music, television, film.  Hundreds of contributing writers’ words dance (stumble) across my screen or page, each article telling me, with varying degrees of conciliatory intimacy and intellectual (vibrato) muscle, that either the sky is falling, the sky is falling and here’s why, or the sky is falling and, boy, aren’t I just dandy!

I’m told what, when, and how much to eat.  I’m told how I should be a better citizen, how not upset my wife when she’s having her period (I don’t have a wife), how to cheat everything from taxes to death, how to “tweak” my understanding of global politics by admitting that I’m just a boorish American, how to wash my whites, why running with scissors is a really bad idea.  I’m told all about Jesus, automobiles, the differences between Web 2.0 and Ajax, why asdf1234 absolutely hates her aunt’s choice of outdoor tablecloths, Michelle Obama’s arms, George W. Bush’s lack of balls (perhaps Michelle Obama has them), and that it is, in fact, quite easy and absolutely a-okay to be green.  Well, what do you know about that?  And here I’d spent years defending that damn talking frog….

Is there no truth?  Is it all truth?  The answer is “yes,” and “yes.”

We have access to more information now than at any time in recorded history, yet we’re still struggling with issues that we should be well beyond—issues such as Civil Rights (gay marriage, abortion, etc.), separation of church and state, corruption in politics and business and religion, etc. That we’re continuously mystified when some monster or group of monsters visits harm upon the innocent reminds me of how a child is continuously amazed by the same magic trick done over and over.

Anyone with a voice today has a very public platform—blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.—and yet for all of this potential, nothing has changed.  So what’s going on here?  I’m beginning to believe that we don’t want answers, that we simply like to hear the sound of our (own) voices, and that in, say, 300 years, this epoch will be looked upon as the Age of the Mental Masturbators.

Are we, in fact, in another Dark Age?  With all that science and technology has done for us, are we any better off?  Before you brand me a troglodyte and catalog our so-called advancements—medicines that prevent erectile dysfunction, that make us happy, that manage our cholesterol and blood pressure, that clean out the plaque in our arteries—riddle me this:  Why are we all so unhealthy?  What, exactly, have we really cured?  Cancer?  Aids?  Autism?  Any of the muscle and nerve diseases, such as MS?  Any of the brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's?  The common cold?  Allergies?  How great is it that billions of dollars were spent and hundreds of animals died slow, unimaginably painful deaths as they were taken apart by scientists in the name of medical research just so Johnny doesn’t have to hit his asthma pump as many times a day?

We have cell phones that can surf the web and give us directions to anywhere in the country, but do we actually go to any of these places?  Do we need to?  And if we do, what do we do when we get there?  A better question:  what have we sacrificed to get there?

If given the choice of a world without the Internet or a world without Shakespeare, I’d take Shakespeare and flush the Internet every single time.  The problem is, I don’t think I’m in the majority.  What’s bringing our country to its knees is not some outside invader but ourselves!  We believe in the very carefully constructed illusion in which we live, the world of material and financial gain unabashedly called “progress” by both government and industry.

Indeed, these are dangerous times.  For why, in 2009, are issues which are fundamental to a thriving, evolving society still, for us, seemingly insurmountable?  Why, for example, are we still hung up on Civil Rights (gay marriage, in particular), bigotry, discrimination, and reverse-discrimination (anti-Semitism, affirmative action, etc.)?  Why haven’t we severed the connection between the television commercials—and the television shows themselves—and our brains?  It frightens me when I’m standing in line at the market and I hear person after person using the exact same lexicon, the exact same thought processes as the characters on their favorite television shows.  I hope you can provide some answers, because I’m all out!

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About Ink and Virtue

  • Wow, I really like this article, don’t care for George Carlin, but I’d also take Shakespeare and flush the Internet any day! One of the problems is that with our technology (internet, texting, e-mail, etc.) we are not forced into real relationships, which leaves us void in many ways.

    Second, gathering accurate information is almost impossible nowadays because of the excess; everyone is an expert and has an opinion. Where are the credentials? And only if you are show up on page 1-3 of Google (or are a celebrity) is your voice heard, even if you are an expert!

    Third, being well informed makes you smart, but does it really build character?

    Final thought on your quote “Is there no truth? Is it all truth? The answer is “yes,” and “yes.” Truth is no longer considered absolute, it is now relative, and too me that adds more confusion and alarm!

  • Shock Mouse

    I found the article layout kind of awkward. All the George Carlin ads were a bit distracting, and it’s easy to miss the top byline since it’s cut off from the story by google ads. The main author link is broken and the bio blurb could have been cut to just “…lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts”

    Good article otherwise.

  • People have always enjoyed the sound of their own voice. The internet simply gave everyone a platform to share it with the world. But whose fault is information overload — the producer or the consumer? We certainly need to learn to filter, to turn off the spigot from time to time so that what we do take in becomes more valuable. Yes, I can comprehend all that I read everyday, but if I don’t allow myself the time to truly think about the implications of an author’s point of view, then I cannot create anything new.

    I agree with you that our culture has bought into the collective illusion of material and financial gain. What could turn that illusion into a dark age is the further belief that our needs are being met by that illusion. We need to encourage people to personally innovate and to think in terms of solutions (not just problems that need solutions).

    On the other hand, I can certainly point out numerous human accomplishments. To use one of your examples, disease, you have to look at progress, not just outright cures. Think about the life expectancy rate of an AIDS patient now vs. 10 years ago. That is progress.

  • Baronius

    None of the sources mentioned in this article are designed to provide in-depth information. They’re great if you want to know what eight people who disagree think about a subject. But if you want to know about a topic, you’ve got to look past the aggregators. If you want to know something, you’ve got to *know* it.

    And who says that we should each be experts on “all” things political, social, et cetera? That would be a fool’s errand with any level of technology. The best you can do is specialize in a few things, and have an idea of who is trustworthy on other issues. But if you’re going to listen to NPR and Rush and wait for them to agree, you’re right, you’re not going to learn anything.

  • Great article, I&V. It captures the crucial distinction between Information and Understanding (or Wisdom). Being bombarded with information doesn’t make us any smarter, does it? Not where it really counts.

    You might say, in fact, is kind of dumbing.

  • dong
  • chire

    Good, important article.

    What can be done? I think you pinpointed the answer in your article: stop looking outside of ourselves for solutions, or to place blame. Many major, seemingly elementary issues remain unresolved because we are taking the wrong approach. Instead of asking how we can make people agree that gay marriage is either right, and torture is wrong, we should look to see how we can promote acceptance and peace within ourselves. The answer will not be found in another book, an important opinion, or a plan of action, but within ourselves. As long as we believe that factors outside of ourselves will ultimately bring revolution, then real change will be elusive. Ultimately, before lamenting the state of the world it is important to see if WE can place peace and acceptance before all else. I think the internet is brilliant because it demonstrates that no matter how powerful our tools and technology, change does not come from the outside.