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Thursday, September 03, 2009

On being an information addict

I recently mused on the question of whether or not St. Paul was a multi-tasker. (The post contains a link to a report on research indicating that multitasking is bad for your thinking.) I'd like to muse, in this post, on the broader question of why anyone might want to be one.

One answer is that some of us have more to do than we really can do. So we feed the baby while we catch up on the news, or take phone calls while stirring the recipe, or checking the e-mail. That's an unfortunately legitimate reason for multitasking, provided, of course, that we haven't taken on more than we should have, doing things we really don't need to.

Another reason is that we have tools which enable us to multitask. I am using an information appliance to write this. You are using an information appliance to read this -- unless someone else has used an information appliance to print this out for you. We have this equipment, so we think we should use it. I didn't have many opportunities to multitask when I was a boy. Although I am not yet eighty years old, I did grow up in a home with no telephone, until I had been in college for a while. If I wanted to communicate with my parents from college, I wrote a post card. I also made sure that I had made future arrangements carefully, since I usually couldn't change them. We certainly had no computer, no television, and no newspaper. (We did have radios.) I couldn't multitask then like I can now, although my father set an example of how to multitask without a phone, TV, or computer, by listening to the radio in the barn, while he was milking cows, with a pulp magazine opened on one leg, pumping out the milk while reading and listening. (He read a lot of fantastic literature.) The radio was the only information appliance he had, and, except for being able to change stations, or the volume, it was a one-way appliance. We received. We didn't broadcast to anybody else.

Not only do some people almost have to multitask, because they have too much to do, and some because they have an information appliance which helps them multitask, but, I submit, there is a third reason -- all of us are information addicts, to a greater or less degree.

Babies show this by paying attention to all sorts of things. Some people show it by watching soap operas. Some show it by paying close attention to the minutiae of some sport, or some favorite team. Some show it by paying close attention to some politician, or to a performer, or even a person prominent because of their religion, or to our own little clique of friends or co-workers. I remember paying far more attention than I should have to the Watergate affair. If I'm not careful, I'll pay too much attention to the trials and tribulations of my current state governor. Some of us are news junkies, with CNN or some other such venue on the TV all the time, or sent regularly to another information appliance. Some of us have way too many Facebook or Twitter contacts, far more than we can reasonably keep up with. (One of my Facebook Friends once suggested -- on Facebook, of course -- that there should be a "Who Cares" button for new entries.) Some of us want to know and hear the latest music, or see the latest fashions, or the news from the markets, the latest recipes, or (oh-oh!) the latest gossip, pure and simple -- not that a lot of the other activities in this paragraph aren't also gossip.

Why do we do this? One reason is that we are suckers for anything new. I suspect that one reason that Eve listened to the serpent was that the serpent said something she hadn't heard or thought of before. Acts 17:21 gives us a description of the Athenians: "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new." (ESV) (Not to challenge the truth of the Bible, but surely there were slaves, and probably other working people in Athens who didn't have time to spend in such a pursuit.) But we like to do this. We are, to some extent, information addicts.

New isn't necessarily bad. The Gospel, after all, is Good News. To people who have never heard it, getting this new information, by whatever means, is critical. Do I still have that hunger to know what God wants to say to me? I hope so, but I fear not.

New can be bad, and the worst thing it can do is to distract from the timeless. There are truths we must not forget, that are far more important than the latest doings in the organizations that are important to us. What are these truths? The Gospel, for one. God's love, and His goodness and holiness, for another. The beauty we see, hear, feel, and smell, in flowers, sunsets, dewdrops, good food, music, children, and laughter. A grandchild's laugh is more important than a sports score or whatever the President may have said. The existence of butterflies, waterfalls, rainbows, and bird songs is far more important than our current bank balance or how our mutual fund is doing. Does this mean that we should never pay attention to the news? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to cut back on our information addiction, and pay attention to what those we love, especially God, are telling us in common, ordinary, slow ways. Perhaps we should be more like J. R. R. Tolkien's hobbits, who, he wrote, ". . . like to have books filled with things they already know, set out fair and square with no contradictions." (Prologue, The Fellowship of the Ring -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954, p. 18.)

The Gospel, God's love, God's creation, and the possibility of meaningful relationships with others, are things that no information appliance will ever give you, or me. May I not forget what's really important, and eternal.

Thanks for using your information appliance.

Jan has written a good, and shorter, post which overlaps with this one.

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