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Russell Wangersky: Gumming up the works

Too much information
Too much information

I’m a detail guy. That’s what I do — I read tons of material, very fast, and remember things.

Russell Wangersky

If you’re at my house and have been out for a smoke, I can tell you where you left your cigarette package, if I’ve walked past it even once. I know where the screwdrivers are, even the one that you left next to the freezer. (It’s a parlour trick, not something I’ve earned.)

I feel sometimes like my head is packed with music, because there are so many songs that I recognize in just a bar or two in — I’m far from alone in that. We are marvelous machines, able to store huge amount of information. So why is so much of it cat videos?

So, what am I getting at here? (Useless knowledge No. 1 — there is a fish parasite that swims in through a fish’s gills, eats the fish’s tongue, and ensconces itself in the spot where the tongue used to be and then eats the fish’s food. Do not search out online videos.)

Well, maybe that we are, in our own way, high-performance cars that are driven on the street instead of the raceway. We’re designed to take reams of information, transform it, use it, store it, build on it. We have doctors who can take a slew of symptoms, line them up, turn them around and come up with a diagnosis. Physicists who can draw up an unseen universe in their heads, and literally make sense of it using high-function mathematics and computer assistance. (Useless knowledge No. 2 — I saw a video of a woman rescuing a sunken osprey in a pond, only to clearly recognize that she now had a bundle of sharp talons and beak walking down a canoe paddle towards her.)

We’ve built a system that makes a vast amount of information immediately available at the touch of a button, meaning that there are libraries of information we no longer need to remember, because we can find it, simply and fast. (Useless knowledge No. 3 — over the weekend, a day-long Twitter battle broke out over whether calling a man with an image of a lemon in his Twitter avatar “Lemon man” was bullying or not.)

But to get back to the racecar analogy: run a performance automobile at slow enough speeds, and all you’re really going to do is to gum it up. It’s hot and fast, not crawl to the corner store.

I mean, it’s clear that the 24-hour news cycle is making everyone sloppy. How can it not? Everyone is working towards the deadline of “now.” Rumour rules, the facts change and stories have to be recast. Things move to the left and to the right; it’s hard to discern what’s accurate.

What sort of electrical work would you get if a condition of every job — even wiring a house — was that it had to be done by noon? There would be more electrical fires, that’s for sure. (Useless knowledge No. 4 — there’s a growing problem for general contractors that, thanks to home renovation shows, scores of people think a bathroom renovation takes half an hour.)

We are detuning ourselves. Faced with an overload, the simple is sticking with us, and our ability to handle the complex is slipping away. (Useless knowledge No. 5 — in the Second World War, aircraft used to drop metallic foil to confuse radar systems about what they were seeing. It was called chaff, presumably in reference to the difference between valuable kernels of wheat and the chaff of wheat stalks.)

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, the wheat and the chaff.

We’re getting it all, now. All of it, at warp speed. All of it, constantly interrupting our concentration, our very ability to concentrate.

The open road is gone, my friends.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky

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