Information Overload Is Nothing New

From the Roman Empire to the BlackBerry jam.

It’s high summer and we’re all out there seeing each other. We’re not hidden away in our homes and offices as we are in winter’s cold. We’re part of a crowd—on the street, in the park, on the boardwalk, on the top deck of the ferry to Saltaire. And we can see in some new or clearer ways how technology is changing us.

For one thing, it is changing our posture. People who used to walk along the avenues of New York staring alertly ahead, or looking up, now walk along with their heads down, shoulders slumped, checking their email and text messages. They’re not watching where they’re going, and frequently bump into each other. I’m told this is called a BlackBerry jam.

A lot of people seem here but not here. They’re pecking away on a piece of plastic; they’ve withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads. It involves their own music, their own conversation, whether written or oral. This contributes to the new obliviousness, to the young woman who steps off the curb unaware the police car with blaring siren is barreling down the street.

In the street café, as soon as they’ve ordered, people scroll down for their email. Everyone who constantly checks is looking for different things. They are looking for connection, information. They are attempting to alleviate anxiety: “If I know what’s going on I can master it.” They are making plans. But mostly, one way or another, I think they are looking for a love pellet. I thought of you. How are you? This will make you laugh. Don’t break this chain. FYI, because you’re part of the team, the endeavor, the group, my life. Meet your new nephew—here’s the sonogram. You will like this YouTube clip. You will like this joke. You are alive.

We are surrounded by screens. Much of their impact is benign, but not all. This summer I turned a number of times—every time I did, a chapter seemed to speak specifically to something on my mind—to the calm and profound “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” by William Powers. It is a book whose subject is how to build a good life in the digital age.

Mr. Powers is not against the screens around us. We use digital devices “to nurture relationships, to feed our emotional, social, and spiritual hungers, to think creatively and express ourselves.” At their best they produce moments that make life worth living. “If you’ve written an e-mail straight from the heart, watched a video that you couldn’t stop thinking about, or read an online essay that changed how you think about the world, you know this is true.” But he has real reservations about what digital devices are at their worst—an addiction to distraction, a way not of connecting but disconnecting.

In a chapter on Seneca, he finds timeless advice.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born at the time of Christ in Cordoba, Spain, an outpost of the Roman Empire. His father was an official in the Roman government, and Seneca followed his footsteps, becoming a Roman senator and, later, advisor to Nero in the early (and more successful) days of his reign. Seneca was a gifted manager and bureaucrat, but he is remembered today because he was an inveterate letter writer, and his correspondence contained thoughts, insights and convictions that revealed him to be a serious philosopher.

Seneca thought the great job of philosophy was to offer people practical advice on how to live more deeply and constructively. He came of age in a time of tumult; the Rome he lived in was being transformed by a new connectedness. An empire that stretched over millions of square miles was being connected by new roads, a civil service, an extensive postal system. And there was the rise of written communication. Writing, says Mr. Powers, was a huge part of the everyday lives of literate Romans: “Postal deliveries were important events, as urgently monitored as e-mail is today.” Seneca himself wrote of his neighbors hurrying “from all directions” to meet the latest mail boats from Egypt.

As written language began to drive things, Mr. Powers says, “the busy Roman was constantly navigating crowds—not just the physical ones that filled the streets and amphitheaters but the virtual crowd of the larger empire and the torrents of information it produced.”

Seneca, at the center of it all, struggled with the information glut, and with something else. He became acutely conscious of “the danger of allowing others—not just friends and colleagues but the masses—to exert too much influence on one’s thinking.” The more connected a society becomes, the greater the chance an individual can become a creature, or even slave, of that connectedness.

“You ask me what you should consider it particularly important to avoid,” one of Seneca’s letters begins. “My answer is this: a mass crowd. It is something to which you cannot entrust yourself without risk. . . . I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with; something or other becomes unsettled where I had achieved internal peace.”

Seneca’s advice: Cultivate self-sufficiency and autonomy. Trust your own instincts and ideas. You can thrive in the crowd if you are not dependent on it.

But this is not easy.

Everyone Seneca knew was busy and important, rushing about with what he called “the restless energy of the hunted mind.” Some traveled to flee their worries and burdens but found, as the old joke says, “No matter where I go, there I am.” Stress is portable. Seneca: “The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.”

Even in Seneca’s time, Mr. Powers notes, “the busy, crowd-induced state of mind had gone mobile.” “Today we ask, ‘Does this hotel have Wi-Fi?'”

And there was the way people consumed information. The empire was awash in texts. “Elite, literate Romans were discovering the great paradox of information: the more of it that’s available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way.” People, Seneca observed, grazed and skimmed, absorbing information “in the mere passing.” But it is better to know one great thinker deeply than dozens superficially.

Seneca, Mr. Powers observes, could have been writing in this century, “when it’s hard to think of anything that isn’t done in ‘mere passing,’ and much of life is beginning to resemble a plant that never puts down roots.”

There are two paths. One is to surrender, to allow the crowd to lead you around by the nose and your experience to become ever more shallow. The other is to step back and pare down. “Measure your life,” advises Seneca, “it just does not have room for so much.”

Beware, in Mr. Powers’s words, “self-created bustle.” Stop checking your inbox 10 times a day, or an hour. Once will do. Concentrate on your higher, more serious purpose, enrich your own experience. Don’t be a slave to technology.

Which is good mid-August wisdom for us all. Focus on central things, quiet the mind, unplug a little, or a lot. And watch out for those crowds, both the ones that cause BlackBerry jams and the ones that unsettle, that attempt to stampede you into going along, or following. Step back, or aside. Think what you think, not what they think. Everyone is trying to push. Don’t be pushed.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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