Sunday, March 13, 2005

What We've Lost

One of the things that upsets me the most about the present and its plethora of moving images and vast indigestible stream of information is the loss of the imaginative necessity that reading (the only way we could know the world) required.

The world, Africa for example, seemed a fuller place when my access to it was National Geographic and Graham Greene novels, not the blast and surfeit of contemporary information, most of which, even if it has value, can’t be humanly held together in a cohesive whole. Then, a generalist (with a liberal education) had value—now everything it would have taken a lifetime to know can be found with a single click of a computer button. I can’t remember who said it, but this encapsulates the issue, “There is more information in a single Sunday New York Times than it took a man, in Shakespeare’s day, a lifetime to accrue.”

All of which brings me to the thought that unless a person is a specialist in one tiny corner of this welter of information they are by circumstance marginalized by a society which values apparent certainty and expertise. What we’ve lost is the capacity reading gave us for wonder (in its most incredible sense), and I miss it very much. Perhaps this is what’s at the heart of my current feeling of being overwhelmed—the former slowness of the process of learning, and it’s value, have changed dramatically in such a few, short years.

Have we finally exceeded our human ability to process information? Is how I feel a consequence of age? Have all generations experienced the same feeling? Is my complaint merely a time-honored case of sour grapes at being left behind? Perhaps there’s an element of all of this in my current state of mind, but overall, at least in a human sense, I believe we’ve lost more than we’ve gained.

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