Data smog and the two-dimensional world


We're three-dimensional beings. We have five senses. We are made of a body, a mind, and a soul. Trying to make us experience life behind a two-dimensional screen in which only two senses are necessary, and in which only two components are of concern reduces human beings to something less each time we do it. We lose dimensionality. We lose our ability to sense and pick up on what's real and what isn't. 

It reduces connection, and our ability to connect. It reduces our situational awareness because we don't need it when we're experiencing most things through two senses. It reduces perception and understanding. And while we go nuts protecting the body and shoving digital information into our mind, our soul withers because spiritual gatherings are unsafe.

Thirteen years ago, on September 5, 2007, I wrote a blog post that matters right now, entitled "When There Is No Paris."

Back in college, when the explosion was happening and the internet was catching fire, I read a book called Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. I admit to not remembering as much as I should from what was likely a good book, but I do recall something that the author, David Shenk, said.

He talked about how part of remembering information involves what I call the geography of the moment. That is, we remember things better by attaching things like surroundings, smells, sounds -- the geography of the moment -- to what we've just learned. He postulated that much of the reading and learning that takes place in front of our computer lacks this. We come across vast amounts of information but that it all takes place on the same computer screen in the same room and after a while, it is difficult to see separation instead of a sort of shapeless blog of abstract "stuff we've read."

We miss the geography of the moment.

After a while, it becomes difficult to remember exactly what we read, when we read it, where we found it...without our bookmarks or browsing history, we're a bit lost.

Shenk was right, at least in some sense. There are times I remember something vague, such as knowing that the book containing the information I'm looking for was blue, or that I first understood a concept while standing in a specific store. With the internet, I only have even the vaguest sense of all the clicking and hyperlinks and where I read or found some bit of information. I am often frustrated when I know I've read something and can't even find it with Google, just a few days later.

I often think about David Shenk's book. It's one that everyone should read, and consider that he wrote it back in the late 1990's.

This pandemic and it's overlords have tried to sell us on this flat digital life as a substitute, and it was an easy sell because we were already barreling towards it, anyway. Life is mostly lived online for so many. Their friendships, relationships, and exhilirating adventures all happen online in two-dimensional space.

The local symphony came out with their "safety" measures for the year, and as expected, they are fear-driven and ridiculous. One of the options is for ticket holders to watch the concerts on a live stream at home. 

Why would I do that? I can watch the Boston Pops or Berlin Orchestra on YouTube for free. I don't have the spare money to toss money at the symphony and not go. I get the tickets not because I'm a philanthropist, but because I love classical music and I love the experience of going, of sitting in the box, of watching the musicians fingers jump around on the strings or keys. I don't have the financial werewithal to toss money at the orchestra and not attend a concert, or spend one behind a mask. I'm not going to sit in my seat and look out over a sparse and spread-out audience with their faces wrapped in expressionless anonymity. The experience they're selling isn't why I go.

Small businesses, local schools, and local events cannot compete in the digital realm, because the digital realm is global and much of it is free. The local version's key to success was that they are a physical place to go because, no matter what they try to tell us during this pandemic, it is our natural human desire and need to go to be with people. We need to have all five senses, all three dimensions, and all three components activated. Having things delivered, or live streamed, doesn't work because it doesn't activate all of those.

We all know it. We all have that gnawing feeling of hollowness that comes from seven months of extreme reduced human contact and forced distance when we're present, of eye-numbing digital "alternatives" to real life.

But the pandemic and all its government and media and advertising knuckleheads have tried to say that distance learning and online living and live streaming and Zoom calls can substitute just as well for being in person.

They are fools.

Shenk's book made it very clear that learning everything behind a computer screen misses the cues we use from wrighting, from holding books, from being in a place--all the little triggers that help us remember and file the information we're learning into a place we can retrieve it. 

Think of the popular concept of the memory palace, and how it helps people remember information. Why does it work? It's because information retrieval is associated with a place, a location. Dimension helps us learn. It helps us remember. It helps us exist fully. If we don't exist to the full outer edges of our being ever stretching the boundaries, we begin to shrivel.

Shriveled human beings are fearful and angry, aren't they? They lash out and confront and antagonize and blame. We've seen that this year.

It's strange to me that I was starting to feel the whisper of this back in 2007, and even back in college apparently.

I connect people with places. They often seem real to me because they are also connected with a real place, a real moment. It's easier to deal with people in such a way, especially if they are no longer a part of my life because of death or they've moved away or I've lost touch. If I can connect them with some kind of geography -- a place or a moment -- it makes it easier, somehow, for my memory to understand the who and the why and the what.

I can say "I remember when" or "I remember where" or, at the most basic, "I remember."

The people I've met on the internet are real. They are. Many I consider good friends. However, they all share the same geography of place and moment, and it makes it so much more difficult to differentiate and to understand what place they have (or no longer have) in my life. I don't have to say "I remember"; I merely have to read my email archives and the moment is present. It's as confusing as the midnight sun.

It would be so much easier to be like Humphrey Bogart and to say to a sad heart "We'll always have Paris" knowing I don't have to visit Paris and be continually reminded of bittersweet things, but when all I have is the computer screen that I visit multiple times a day...I'm never quite sure what to do with that.

The good of dimensional reality is removed, and the vague flat versions of reality (or the outright bad) is permanently saved in some digital archive, dinging in notification on our phones telling us to look and be absorbed in a screen and leave the space we're in.

Do not be convinced by the clever ads, the school boards and leaders, the government officials, the brands that are trying to say life is purely about protecting bodies and that it is a acceptable to that by being at home by yourself with your selfies and screens. 

They're lying. They might not mean to, they might not know what else to do, but it's not the truth.

Living like that, in two dimensions, is destroying your soul. You're being flattened, kind of like how Bilbo Baggins said he felt like too little butter spread over too much bread.

Reject live streams and screens as much as you can, even if it means you have nothing left to go to but the park bench with a good book.

I'd recommend starting with Shenk's book.