Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Information Addict

I walked behind her, the city swirling in the human ejecta that had arrived predictably from the office buildings as the workday drew to a close. She brushed awkwardly against the tide of pedestrian traffic, distracted,  her honey brown hair swinging. The leather satchel hung heavily from her shoulder, making the task at hand that much more difficult. Her secondary goals were to catch the train, to cross the busy streets, but her primary focus right now, in the bustle of the busiest city street was her smartphone. She held it out like a compass, engaged in a pressing conversation. I saw the blurs of blue and green as she dodged the passers by - the telling hues of the Android SMS app.  I stared at her golden hoop earring, mesmerized, as it swayed all of its own accord with the rhythm of the street. 

It seemed almost comical, to watch somebody furiously engaged in texting, in this peculiar form of social interaction, in the middle of a million people.  I began to wonder, what is it that makes us so obsessed? And then I realised. She was suffering from the same malady that I do - and that you probably do too. She was a junkie. She was addicted to something, something powerful, intoxicating, something that we all crave with incredible reckless abandon. She was an information addict.

The world that we live in now is steeped in information. Spectacular images are everywhere, whizzing by us on buses, flickering at us from neon signs. Motivating quotations and inspiring sayings are co-opted into advertisements. We can take a photo or a video of anything we see and share it with billions of strangers. I can take any place in the city, and find out fifty different opinions of it. There are millions and millions  of social media status updates posted each day, ranging across the whole range of humanity, from the pornographic, through the thoughtful, banal, the humorous and the bizarre. All of this informaiton is available to us, and our computers at any time. The whole body of human knowledge is, more or less, accessible from the pocket of the average pair of blue jeans. And those jeans are periodically buzzing.

I arrived at my hotel, and sat down in the lobby. With a quick Google search for the date and venue, I quickly  found the three events that had taken place at the hotel that day. From there, I could find the hashtags used for those events, and there, right before me, streamed a whole series of updates from the attendees - a Building Industry Management course, a meeting of the Australian Press Club, and a business lunch from the CEO of Google Australia, talking about the importance of moving business models from the traditional to the online. All of these conversations, like information ghosts, relics of the events that I had not attended that day - I could conjure them out of the air. I could read the ideas, the disagreements, the inside jokes. Meet the people, read their profiles, their histories.  I looked around at the real life people sitting in the lobby, many of them just as I was, alone and engaged with their smartphones. Having meaningful interactions, with people far, far away from the silver and gold gleaming metal hotel reception.

Outside of hunger for food and lust for reproduction, the thing that we all crave the most, is knowledge. And operational knowledge comes from one thing - analysing information. Just like the sweetness of sugar, the heady sense of dopamine that we get from consuming information is a precursor - it's a sign that something good is coming. Consuming information pleases our brains, it gives us a reassuring sense of insight, it tells us that we could possibly gain something from this interaction. It gives us something to look forward to. Just like the sweetness on the tongue is an indication of impending calories, useful calories, the consumption of information is the first step to actually knowing something. And knowing something can be remarkably powerful - it could, after all lead to reproduction or acquisition of food or other resources. It's all about the knowing of things, this is what we want. And this is why we are all engaged, so recklessly, often at our own peril, in consumption of the endless banquet of information that we have before us.

Just like processed food, and the glut of readily available calories have caused so many of us to become obese, and unhealthy (In fact, there are more people on the planet today suffering from the consequences of too much food, rather than too little), isn't it possible that this massive oversupply of readily available information is going to cause us unhappiness? Is consuming all this information actually harmless?

Look at the growth in conspiracy theory. It goes directly to the dopamine center of the brain, by fuelling the ego of the conspiracy theorist. Because they alone, know something that nobody else knows, that the Rothschilds are controlling the weather, or that lizard people live inside the hollow Earth controlling all the illuminati. It's like a kind of tasty, promising fast food consumption, and one that doesn't' swell the waistline, but the head. Wake up sheeple!

I have spent my entire life, like lots of us, working with information. Trying to find ways to manage it appropriately, to connect people with meaningful information, to help people to get a handle on this information volume problem, and I am slowly coming around to the realization that excess information consumption is most definitely problematic.

Some of the issues include our inability to process the"right" kinds of information - a kind of signal to noise problem. But other issues arise from the fact that our models that we have evolved for processing this information are largely cracking under the pressure. Our society has not evolved mechanisms to cope with this massive influx of information. Our governance systems and leadership models are failing us, not because we don't know things, but because we do.  Twitter watching, Poll obsessed politicians drive at optimizing policies for the niche case of voters likely to turn an election, rather than providing any kind of meaningful guidance. Internet special interest groups are soliciting for email lists much faster than they are for policies.

We have evolved a brain that is wired for ideas. It's wired to listen to them, to turn them over, to look for patterns, and to combine them with other ideas. And like all natural systems, these systems are prone to corruption. Just like a raven will adapt to the garbage bin, and shift his diet from bugs to fries, the human pattern matching algorithm will just as happily follow an endless stream of amusing photographs on a tumblr site. We've all done it. It's fun.

But is it healthy?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Brush Strokes

What she meant was never clear. As she stumbled, in suspended animation, her long hair falling despondently ahead of her into the chasm that opened before her, the garbled sentiment seemed heartfelt and intensely personal. Hoping she'd be the one to plant herself on in. The draining, collapsing of a worldview and creative consciousness as she dropped, inch by tentative inch, a perfectly transcendental descent.

After the fall, the world completely transfixed itself around change. Every day, the change was present, like a stalker, constant, enforcing it's nebulousness - it's constant, incessant presence. Always. Nothing was the same. She was never the person she could have been. The kind of person that she was always poised to become. Those memories lingered, not with the breadth of potential that they held in precognizant times, but with the bitter residual momentum of difference. His dreams held her aloft, strained to push against her 'real' self, not the calculated, difficult and ingratiatingly rational person that had emerged.

His brush filled the canvas with the same broad, bold, flourishes of acrid desert colors. The dangerousness of the elements, brought through the loneliness of change, sprang from the canvas, his whole self forcing against him, while she lay idly in the background, the orderly collection of reconciled dockets and spreadsheets, the stapler fixing with formulated guard. He stabbed the brush in forceful moments, in time with the meticulous sound of the stapling.

He would remember how the real person, the wife-that-was would dance. And slovenly collapse on his arm at the end of the evening, sweaty and sated with lustful desire, fuelled by lines of coke, and a fierce compulsion to create, and build, and fuck and shine. He could still see her, trying to afix the disco ball to the stairwell wall, stunned by the sparkles cascading from out in the open hallway. Precariously balanced on the railing, still wearing a shapely black evening dress hitched up to her waist. Alternating between a serious effort, and collapsing into fits of giggles. He walked up the stairs and scooped her up as if she were nothing, her mock protests fading as he carried them up to the second floor, becoming more and more the focus of her scattered attention...

The morning opened, as they all did these days, with the stark violation of his forcefully created reality. It was real. Not a dream. She was gone. He rolled over to the place in the bed where he insisted she was. Nothing.

The shade of awning kept the morning light from intriguing into her early morning ritual. One bowl of cereal, with precisely 27 raisins. The CD player playing The Police's Synchronicity as each raisin was counted and individually placed into the bowl. The milk was in a precisely measured white jug, placed at a calculated angle from the bowl. One, two, three.

Each moment of her existence was now a measure, a careful, momentary rational continuance of the previous reasonable process. The things that brought her pleasure had changed. Pleasure itself had changed. Change. These thoughts came not from her, for the very notion of contemplating order was no longer part of the world. These thoughts He had to think for her-that-was. He had to feel the frustration for her. And he did. For them all - for the three of them.

He wanted to make something sweet. Blood and soil, a maple tree. Make something good. He was changing. Changed. He staggered past canvases, hers long since dry, and his still wet, their works co-habitual places staring at each other, eying each other with a conjoined creativity that no longer existed in the dimension of time. He paused at a sculpture carved from her hand, a soapstone monument to the curves that first brought his eyes to light on her.

Chided, still woozy and struck from the shock, and the surprise that it still hurt, he felt a brief moment of self-indulgent, wicked delight at their misfortune. A pang of ringing satisfaction at his own personal torment. The reality, the starkness, was precisely the thing that drove him, and him alone. Nobody else could know.

He knocked on the kitchen door, as he did every morning.

"Who is it?" Her voice was lilting, but emotionless.

"It's me." The ritual.

"Very well, you may enter"

He shuffled into the kitchen, shuddered, and stretched carefully. She regarded him as a barely tolerable intrusion into the structured morning.

She sat, dressed serenely, brown bread and sensible shoes. He loved her, both of her, The she-she-was, and the she-she-shall-become. He made coffee, carefully engaged, head down.

Raisins plopping into the bowl.

Sting sings "Wrapped around your finger"

Monday, April 30, 2012

Blessed are the ListMakers

This is a post from my morning pages completed at http://750words.com. These early posts are frequently disconnected, semi-cohesive train-of-thought ramblings, and they very seldom see the light of day. I recently re-read this entry from September last year and it resonated a bit with me - perhaps because it is a product of my sleep-fogged brain. If you're interested in writing, sign up and get started writing your own 750 words a day. It's kind of fun! 

What is it with the ability to know anything at all, with the ideas that we float along in our heads, the half structured, the impending and the unknown tangible fleeting moments that scuttle around in our minds as we weave our ways through the day. Carrying in our minds this impending activity - one that, while started can never really be finished - that there's no urgency, only a vague kind of responsibility, a light and unfettered dusting of supposed-to, once that has gone, and it is so easily resplendent in the galaxy that we live in, so shy to coyly place the idea into another compartment, to weave through the distractions with years of deft, practiced skill, and to shine through the many different ways that the smoke haze delicately shovels itself around the notions in my brain, throughout the swollen strings and colorful moments of distraction. There are impending notices, messages, retrieved from the far away places, the recesses, the bell that rings with it's grey doldrums, diffusing the game into a societal discharge of scattered children, that run like marbles from a glass jar, speckled and chaotic, to the line where we all stand, waiting for the queue to form the next line to get out of the place that we are all in.

Should we ever allow the caterwauling piercings to puncture and probe their way into those comfortable places, then the guilt would set upon us like a jackal, like an old enemy, with a harsh momentary lapse of sensibility, that would sting with resolve and the methods of past, abandoned shuttles of collective responsibility and the right thing. We would feel apprehended by ourselves, because in truth, that is precisely what we would be. There is too much pain to be found in the process of sitting down and completing a task - it is too hard, too much like something else we might do, there are other responsibilities, more important other responses, that make up a list.

A long and weaving list of things that need to be done. It's horrendous, how this list seems to be a solution to the problems. Take the load off, unburden those responsibilities, and add them into a list. Then take the list, and abandon it, ignore it, let it to its job of removing the bodies stress, and sense of pending completion by capturing those sentiments down into a level of ink and paper, or bits lined up in a solid state hard drive in a very particular way. Breathe out. Let it go. Leave all those pressing tasks down there, and leave it all behind. Shed your pressures and stress, make a list. And then walk away, secure in the knowledge that you can't possibly forget to complete those things - they are on a list, after all.

And you walk away as the candle burns down, and the list is left there, abandoned - that thought, that half-formed proposal, or half-hearted promise, suddenly coalesced into a task and written down. So, all sorted out then.

Except that it was a moment, when there is too much to do, when the pressure of satisfactory builds up to a point where it is a skyscraper of bleak unmoving unhappiness, were you simply have to let it go. You have to mark all those tasks as complete, knowing full well that the tasks are not, and will never be complete. You have to get them away from your visibility, and into a kind of task purgatory, where things aren't done or not done - not completed or pending, or waiting on another. They're just there - marked as complete, but not done in any way, just - there. A record of a moment when you were organized, when you had full intent that you would be able to complete the activitiy, just a hopeless, disorganizes representation of the kind of person that you really are, but that your subjective ego won't let you see. And you see it, in those red, overdue tasks. When you know, in the heart of your hearts, that you will not be doing those things. And you never really had any intention of doing them in the first place, and as a result, while it makes you feel vaguely sad, it doesn't make you feel sad enough to be motivated.

Every day is a test - from the east to the west. It's easy to forget that this is who we are.