Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A Point of View: Does more information mean we know less?

We pay a price for all the information we consume these days - and it's knowing less, says Alain de Botton.

One of the more embarrassing difficulties of our age is that most of us have quite lost the ability to concentrate, to sit still and do nothing other than focus on certain basic truths of the human condition.

The fault lies in part with our new gadgets. Thanks to our machines, of which we are generally so proud, the past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds on anything. To sit still and think without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine has become almost impossible.

But we can't just blame the machines. There is a deeper issue at stake - the feeling, so common in modern secular culture that we must constantly keep up with what is new.

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties. Something that if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellow human beings.

We honour the power of culture, but rarely admit with what scandalous ease we forget its individual monuments. Three months after we finish reading a masterpiece, we may struggle to remember a single scene or phrase from it.

We are reluctant to admit that we are simply swamped with information and have lost the ability to make sense of it. For example, a moderately industrious undergraduate pursuing a degree in the humanities at the beginning of the 21st Century might run through 800 books before graduation day.

By comparison, a wealthy English family in 1250 would have counted itself fortunate to have three books in its possession, this modest library consisting of a Bible, a collection of prayers and a compendium of lives of the saints - these nevertheless costing as much as a cottage.

If we lament our book-swamped age, it is because we sense that it is not by reading more, but by deepening and refreshing our understanding of a few volumes that we best develop our intelligence and our sensitivity.

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than St Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

The need to diet, well accepted in relation to food, should be brought to bear on our relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

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