A Point of View: Does more information mean we know less?
- 14 January 2011
- From the section Magazine
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 steadily 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 rife 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.
The news occupies in the secular sphere much the same position of authority that the liturgical calendar has in the religious one. Its main dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision. Matins have here been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin and Vespers into the evening report.
The prestige of the news is founded on the unstated assumption that our lives are forever poised on the verge of a critical transformation, thanks to the two driving forces of modern history - politics and technology. The earth must therefore be latticed with fibre-optic cables, the waiting rooms of its airports filled with monitors, and the public squares of cities ribboned with the chase of stock prices.
Contrast this with how religions think of what is important. For the faiths there is seldom any need to alter insights or harvest them incrementally through news bulletins. The great stable truths can be written down on vellum or carved into stone rather than swilling malleably across hand-held screens.
For 1.6 billion Buddhists, there has been no news of world-altering significance to their faith since 483 BC. For their Christian counterparts, the critical events of history came to a close around Easter Sunday in 30 AD, while for the Jews the line was drawn a little after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman general Titus, in 70 AD.
Even if we do not concur with the specific messages that religions schedule for us, we can still concede that we pay a price for our promiscuous involvement with novelty. We occasionally sense the nature of our loss at the end of an evening, as we finally silence the TV after watching a report on the opening of a new railway or the tetchy conclusion to a debate over immigration.
It is then we might realise that - in attempting to follow the narrative of man's ambitious progress towards a state of technological and political perfection - we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of eternal, quieter truths which we know about in theory, and forget to live by in practice.
Rather than letting us constantly catch up on "news", religions prefer to keep reminding us of the same old things, according to strictly timetabled routines.
The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, decrees that its subscribers should always gather at 6.30pm in the evening on the 26th Sunday after Trinity, as the candlelight throws shadows against the chapel walls, to listen to a reading from the second section of the Book of Baruch. Just as on the 25th day of January they must always think of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and on the morning of the 2nd of July reflect on the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and imbibe the moral lessons of Job.
How free secular society leaves us by contrast. It expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. Like science, it privileges discovery. It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of novelty.
For example, we are enticed to go to the cinema to see a newly released film, which ends up moving us to an exquisite pitch of sensitivity, sorrow and excitement. We leave the theatre vowing to reconsider our entire lives in light of the values shown on screen, and to purge ourselves of our decadence and haste.
And yet by the following evening, after a day of meetings and aggravations, our cinematic experience is well on its way towards obliteration. Just like so much else which once impressed us, but which we soon enough came to discard - the majesty of the ruins of Ephesus, the view from Mount Sinai, that poetry recital in Edinburgh, the feelings we had after putting down Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich.
In the end, all modern artists share something of the bathetic condition of chefs, for whereas their works may not themselves erode, the responses of their audiences will. 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.
Our favourite secular books do not alert us to how inadequate a one-off linear reading of them will prove. They do not identify the particular days of the year on which we ought to reconsider them as the holy books do, in the latter case with 200 others around us and an organ playing in the background.
There is arguably as much wisdom to be found in the stories of Anton Chekhov as in the Gospels, but collections of the former are not bound with calendars reminding readers to schedule a regular review of their insights.
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.
We are often urged to celebrate not only that there are so many books to hand, but also that they are so inexpensive. Yet neither of these circumstances should necessarily be deemed unambiguous advantages. Consider the immensely costly and painstaking craftsmanship behind a pre-Gutenberg Bible - a product of a society which wished to elevate individual books into objects of extraordinary beauty so as to emphasise their spiritual and moral significance.
Though technology has rendered it more or less absurd to feel gratitude over owning a book, there remain psychological advantages in rarity. We can revere the care that goes into making a Jewish Sefer Torah, the sacred scroll of the book of Moses, a copy of which will take a single scribe a year and a half to write out by hand, on a parchment made from the hide of a ceremonially slaughtered goat which has been soaked for nine days.
We should stand to swap a few of our swiftly disintegrating paperbacks for volumes that would proclaim, though the weight and heft of their materials, the grace of their typography and the beauty of their illustrations, our desire for their contents to assume a permanent place in our hearts.
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.