Infoglut by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges,” says writer Orham Pamuk , “through affection, attention, interest and compassion … open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details, and irony.”

And then poet Mary Oliver: she says,

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

The story I have to tell about infoglut or any number of other names for it— data smog, data deluge, datapocalypse, datageddon, or just simply information overload—starts with attention. Because infoglut—to the degree it troubles us in heart and mind—steals from us the beauty and the mystery of this world.

Just four years ago, the National Center for Biotechnology Information calculated the average human attention span to be eight seconds—one second less than that of a goldfish, which has a nine second attention span. Five years ago the human average was twelve seconds. The trend is steadily downwards.

Infoglut is a thief of vitality and connection and life.

But in this sermon, I don’t want to echo a message we’ve already heard today: that the problem is the avalanche of information coming at us from all directions. I want to explore another dimension: the filtering capacity of the human mind. Fact is, the natural world sends us an endless stream of information and we handle it just fine. Nature is absolutely not a source of the kind of stress, anxiety, fatigue, frustration, reduced productivity, and feelings of being overburdened and overwhelmed that we get from, say, email.

So why the difference? Why can the body and brain handle natural infoglut with ease but struggle so with human-created infoglut?

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin helps us understand, by describing some particular features of human attention that served us well 100,000 or 10,000 years ago but which nevertheless give us trouble today.

One is this: how attention is a limited capacity resource. Levitin defines it as a 120 bits per second capacity to process information. He calls this the “information speed limit” for human brains. It’s 60 bits per second of processing power just to

focus on and understand what a single person is saying. That’s the energy you are expending right now. But now imagine how that expenditure gets ramped up if you are listening to me, checking email, checking Facebook, and Tweeting all at the same time. The closer we get to exceeding the speed limit, the more we hear but do not understand, the more mistakes we make, the more exhausted we feel…

100,000 years ago, or 10,000 years ago, the complexity of the world was such that the information speed limit worked just fine. Now, not so much.

Then there’s the insight that “Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time. This,” says Levitan, “enabled our ancestors to hunt animals, to create and fashion tools, to protect their clan from predators and invading neighbors. The attentional filter evolved to help us stay on task, letting through only information that was important enough to deserve disrupting our train of thought.”

So what is a brain like this going to do with a smart phone? Make no mistake, I want to party with my smart phone, whose design is a festival of multitasking. I want to listen to music as I check out Facebook posts, the current status of my Words With Friends games, and other apps—and do all this while I’m walking.

What else I want to do is this. When I’m in the more administrative mode of my work, and I’m not in some kind of meeting, I’m wanting to write this memo or that report while I check email 40 times an hour, or answer texts, or take calls. This, with my evolutionarily designed one-thing-at-a-time brain which also has a definite speed limit, which I am constantly violating….

What I want to do is get carried away in this brave new world of rush-and-gush; but what my brain can handle is something else.

“Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time,” says Levitan. “But a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century.”

A way which started 5000 years ago, to be exact, when humans starting inventing information technologies, like writing. (Quick side-note about writing: Apparently the invention of it, 5000 years ago in the Sumerian city of Uruk, was not really for lofty purposes of statesmanship or literature or religious expression, as we might hope. No, what really drove the invention was business. What was needed was some way to keep track of business receipts more reliably. Yes, business receipts are the ultimate origin of everything written since, including the Bible, the I Ching, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, and Harry Potter.)

But listen to the Bible’s own complaint about information overload, written around the 3rd or 4th century BC: Ecclesiastes 12:12: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” And then, in 1st century AD, Seneca the Elder commented that “the abundance of books is a distraction.”

These are complaints of information overload! We today are not original in our distress! Humans have been feeling it ever since the invention of writing! The unintended consequence was infoglut of the human-created variety. Every new invention has just increased the infoglut until we find ourselves where we are today.

New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress portrays a couple walking down a street, and one says to the other, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

But if we’re just struggling to remain sane, what happens to Mary Oliver’s call to go way beyond that and live a full life?

What do we do to make it better?

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that, in our infoglut world, there are thousands and thousands of voices available on the Internet. Ted Talks, articles, blogs, and so on, to tell you all about how to manage things.

Here, I just want to say one thing. Until the time further technological innovation can support our behind-the-curve brains with better filtering and managing devices, the best thing we can do is accept ourselves. Accept our humanity. Not to forget it and act like we are more than we are.

Fact is, it’s easy to get addicted to infoglut and the rush and gush world it comes from, even as we struggle with it mightily. I mean, we live in a world in which our technologies enable us to transcend time and space; know more things as individuals, instantly, than could ever be known before; and do things that, to previous generations, would appear miraculous.

How amazing is that?

So amazing, that it gets beneath our skin. We start developing expectations about ourselves and others that are distinctly inhuman and echo infinity. The inner logic is this: Because technology makes it possible to transcend space and time, I and others should do that and stay connected via smart phone and email and Facebook and Twitter unceasingly and always. Because technology makes it possible to plug into endless data streams, I and others should do that. Because technology makes it possible to do apparently miraculous things, I and others should do likewise.

I should be doing this—other people should be doing this. The expectation has gotten beneath the skin, and it is impossible to live up to. We fragile humans always fail. And therefore there can be resentment towards others—and guilt in ourselves. Both feelings go hand-in-hand. People should be able to respond to my emails within the hour or the day; they don’t do that; I resent them. I should be able to respond to emails within the hour or the day; I simply cannot do this and everything else I need to do; I feel so guilty.

The addiction to the rush and gush—the expectations of instant responsiveness we develop for others and ourselves—the incredible guilt: all of this reflects a forgetting of our basic humanity. It’s not our fault that our brains, which took 200,000 years to form, haven’t kept up with technological developments of the last 7000 years which in evolutionary time is faster than the blink of an eye.

To make things better, we must accept who we are.

We are not Gods.

This key theological assertion is eminently practical, and allows us to prioritize. It allows us to know some things and do some things, as opposed to trying to know and do it all.

My smart phone sure feels like it can do it all. Google knows everything. But not me.

And that’s gotta be ok.

I am not God.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief,” says the Talmud. “Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

As infoglut and data smog, data deluge, datapocalypse, datageddon, and whatever else you want to call it threatens to overwhelm you, remember, you are human.

Take care of your vulnerable, fragile, evolutionarily-behind-the-curve but nevertheless precious self so you can have a life, so you can do better than a goldfish with its attention span of nine seconds, so you can

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.