First World blessings of information overload
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 February 2016)

Our endlessly proliferating language has in recent times created a term for careless ingratitude, "First World Problem," a phrase with sardonic overtones that make it a favourite on social media.

It describes a trivial complaint that bothers only those who have the economic and social privileges associated with the First World. A Twitter post a few years ago said "My ergonomic mouse is too sensitive!" Whoever wrote that realized it was gauche and immediately followed with a self-conscious apology: "#firstworldproblems." One dictionary makes the point in dialogue: "My 7-dollar latte came with ONE espresso shot instead of the TWO I ordered!"

In the summer of 2008, The Atlantic published a cover story with an ominous title: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The author was Nicholas Carr, who often writes on technology, business and culture. Carr wasn't the first to identify the dangers of the Internet, but he was among the most ingenious. His article started a new wave of First World problems, which Carr and the many people who quote him have whipped up to typhoon level. Few weeks go by without a warning that we are being distracted to death by the data flowing to us over the Internet, that our emails are driving us crazy, and that the development of the young is being impeded by smartphones and social media. Carr has written several books on this theme, including The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

He began the Atlantic article by quoting the scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey where Hal the supercomputer has tried to destroy the astronaut Dave Bowman, who is saving himself by taking Hal's brain apart. "Dave, stop," Hal pleads. "Stop, will you?" As Dave goes on, Hal begs, "Dave, my mind is going ... I can feel it."

He was a regular reader of books but the Web has changed him. "The way I THINK has changed."

At that point Carr reported, "I can feel it, too." He believes that in recent years something has been tinkering with his brain, affecting his reading. He used to immerse himself in a book, caught up in a narrative or an argument. But now, in the age of Google, his concentration drifts after two or three pages. "I get fidgety, lose the thread." The deep reading that once came naturally has become a struggle.

His friends feel the same way. One says he's stopped reading books altogether. He was a regular reader of books but the Web has changed him. "The way I THINK has changed."

Carr too blames the Web. He appreciates the way it makes research easier, but he says this comes at a price. He quotes Marshall McLuhan's perception that media shape the process of thought. But where McLuhan avoided moralizing on that point, Carr sees the Web "chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation" as it turns information into a swiftly moving stream of particles.

His fear of humanity drowning in data sounds like a totally First World problem. Solving it requires only that we all choose what we want to know and experience. In a recent issue of the New Republic, Navneet Alang describes several cases of people "navigating excess," making sharp decisions about what to consume. "Refusing over represented ideas and voices can be a way to build a more balanced view of the world," Alang writes. Two people refused to read books by white men for a year. People have only watched films by women on Netflix. One user wrote: "There is a curious and tiny power in realizing you can have some control over the media you consume."

Some of those ideas sound a bit outlandish, but I realize that I do the same thing. When Ellsworth Kelly died, in December, I realized how much his work meant to me. I read the thoughtful obit in The New York Times (online) and decided I wanted to look again at his paintings. I turned to Google Images, which showed me scores of them. I examined them for half an hour, remembering what I felt when I first saw his art (apathy at his simple-mindedness) and what I felt after seeing dozens of his paintings (pure pleasure at his increasingly ingenious use of colour and shape). For the rest of the day, when I wasn't working, I read the tributes to him as they flowed in.

It all felt entirely right, and the Web, bless its digital heart, took me through it with ease and grace. If the Web sometimes encourages trivialities, it can also deepen our appreciation of a subject that matters.

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