Like many of us, I have an Internet problem. An addiction, if you will. What does it say about us that, as a 2013 KPCB study reported, average mobile phone users check their device 150 times a day? Shocking data on the frequency of Internet use does not itself explain what our online engagements mean. For example, debates rage in the mental health community about whether what we call Internet addiction is best defined as its own disorder or as a behavior indicative of other, underlying challenges such as depression or bi-polar disorder. Even so, clinics and research centers increasingly focus on how excessive interconnectedness online harms our relationships with the people around us, keeps us from living in the present moment, and distracts us from life/work priorities.
Unlike the average mobile phone user, I don't interrupt whatever I may be doing to respond to the blips and beeps that announce "you matter!" throughout the day. I do seek out new bits of news every few hours. It doesn't matter to me whether I'm searching on my phone or some other device. I constantly check and recheck The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, La Jornada, Clarín -- not to mention this very site. While you're reading this, I'm probably checking it now.
The KPCB study showed there has been a nine-fold increase since 2008 in the amount of digital information in the world. I read news sources compulsively, maybe obsessively, in acknowledgment of the sheer amount of data available at my fingertips. My habit takes the form of information-gathering, as if such gathering were the same thing as drawing the connections that make data meaningful. I nurse a vague intuition that doing this daily will eventually help me apprehend the big picture of our epoch.
I'm searching for a method to understand that big picture. Or rather, I indulge the fantasy that a method will emerge naturally after years of this kind of reading, so that I'll suddenly be able to explain the whole thing. By 'the whole thing' I don't mean the whole of my reading. I mean the whole of contemporary social reality insofar as it reveals itself in the 24-hour news feeds and commentary that are easily available to people like me, folks with Internet access and time to read.
This fantasy contradicts everything I do in my professional life, but the activity it is based on almost exactly mimics my work practice. (That similarity with a twist is very seductive.) As a professor of literature and literary theory, I read for a living. I read across genres, languages, regions, and time periods. Together, my students and I explore what writing and reading can and cannot do in the world. Through my own study and teaching, I have learned that writing neither directly reflects the world, nor accurately refers to it. At least not in the ways we so ardently wish it could. We want journalism to be utterly unbiased, histories to be thick and factual, crime stories to be plausible, romance to feel familiar and possible, characters to seem like real people we might meet or emulate in our own lives. We want writing to bridge our private desires and the public world. For texts to become bridges, however, they must be read.
Writing (and other forms of human creativity like art, music, design, urban planning, religion) creates the world as we can be aware of it. How we imagine the world guides how we move through it; how we share our imagination of the world with others may as well be the world we live in together. When hard reality contradicts our ways of symbolizing it, then we adjust our imagination to minimize the disjunction. But we never occupy a conscious space outside of our drive to symbolize and narrate.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story, "Funes the Memorious," about a character whose injury in an accident renders him physically paralyzed and also unable to forget anything. He remembers everything exactly as he perceives it. A dog seen from the front, if fully remembered, is quite different from the same dog seen from the side a few minutes later. A raindrop halfway down the window is not at all the same thing as that raindrop when it has slid down to the sill. Funes does not prioritize symbols, materiality, or object permanence. What he sees and what he conceives of, including language, numbers, objects, and moments, is all simultaneously accessible to him. Therefore, he can neither think nor narrate. Thought and narration require at least two basic functions: forgetting certain particularities and making connections.
If news sources were in fact accurate and complete, and if I really could read all the news produced each day in the few languages I speak, I might know so much as to be able to think or say nothing about it. But what if I read my ever-refreshed rotation of news sites for shared forms of forgetting? Or for patterns of connection? Is it possible to clearly discern the gaps and leaps that shape the narratives we are producing right now, at the beginning of the 21st century?
I say I'm searching for a method, but I also find it comforting to stay in the mode of massive collecting with no analysis. I want to have Funes's special abilities and yet also be able to see patterns and generalities without putting myself on the line. My Internet addiction exposes a belief that somehow, from the mass of words and images, an answer will emerge on its own.
I recognize the absurdity of that belief. Scanning and collecting is not reading; it's a kind of paralysis. I know that coherence does not reveal itself to us as if it had always been there, as if we weren't responsible for forgetting just the right amount and just the right things in order to think, to narrate. I know that my own creative acts are required if I am to draw meaning from the rush of particulars. Whatever 'big picture' might emerge will have to come from me and the ways I read, not from the screen. That's how I matter.
My Internet addiction, it turns out, is based not on the simulation of connection highs, but on their perpetual postponement. I spend all my time addicted to the news, but I just can't seem to commit.