Sunday 15 December 2019

First Person: Data gives me a glitch

Pining for the ignorant-bliss days, Julia Molony is worried a knowledge surplus is clogging up her brain

Julia Molony
Julia Molony

Julia Molony

This sounds bad, but sometimes I miss not knowing stuff. I miss the time before data started flowing into me all day, every day, as if I'm connected by an IV line to my smartphone. I'm mainlining megabytes, and I wonder about the long-term effects of filling myself with all that noise.

I miss the days when I stumbled upon discoveries accidentally, in 3-D life. Diving into random music bars and restaurants on a hunch - without reading up on them first on TripAdvisor, checking their star rating and trying to guess whether the tastes of LaLa14 from Kentucky or hotdog72 from Melbourne will be closest to my own. 3G has killed the art of following your nose.

I miss the days of ignorant bliss before I found out that dizzy spells and headaches could either be of no significance whatsoever, or a red flag that heralds the onset of an immediately life-threatening disease.

I'm nostalgic for a time when, if a human wanted to bitch about another human, the decent thing was to go somewhere quiet and do it behind their back, rather than anonymously and on-the-record permanently, for all the world to see. Bad vibes seemed less volatile, somehow, when their ownership was claimed.

I'm drowning in facts of dubious value. Here, for example, are three new things I learned today: 1) Scientists have discovered why humans have only one penis; 2) The rapper Usher has a fantasy-book-club, and members include Morgan Freeman, Oprah and SpongeBob SquarePants; 3) A man recently returned home to Guangzhou province in China after a holiday to find 20 maggots living under his skin.

And that's just the tip of the digital trash heap that I'm likely to chow my way through on any given morning. I'm so inured now to this mindless consumption, that I barely even notice it going in. I don't taste it first. I'm not aware of any volition involved in swallowing it down. I just passively suck in facts and comments and opinion and bile, like a foie gras duck on a feeding tube. I think this phenomenon might come to be known as the anti-enlightenment - the accumulation of knowledge that leads precisely nowhere, except to a state of bewildered apathy so overwhelming, it makes you want to claw at your own face.

I wonder if all that data collects on the wiring of the brain like limescale, lodged in the hippocampus, taking up space that might once have been used to remember people's birthdays, or to learn Portuguese.

Of course, it's my own fault. As well as being a resource, the internet is a mirror. You get back what you put in. Perhaps there are people with more orderly minds than mine who dip in and out of the world wide web in precise, structured attacks of learning. Individuals who can open the digital porthole at the end of their arm, and explore the rich-but-hazardous mines beneath with a sense of direction and purity of purpose, like a contestant on the Crystal Maze systematically picking up stars; never getting led astray by pictures of bad plastic surgery, celebrity boobs or videos of dancing cats. They harvest the good from the internet and leave behind the petty, the pointless and the sad.

In the absence of such discipline, I often think back fondly to a time when life was mostly real and immediate, experienced in actual time on five sensory planes, rather than compressed into an endless stream of mind-jabs made of text and image, which, in their direct progress to the brain, bypass the skin and muscles and taste and smell.

I mourn an era in which most things were tangible. When reading was something done in a linear fashion, from beginning to end, not a constant, dizzying, side-to-side toggling between competing stimuli. Perhaps this is the final proof that I am a Luddite. Or just simply getting old.

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