Think About It!

thinkPeople don’t think anymore.  I’m not talking about stupid people, although the 21st century seems to have an extra ration of them.  Nor am I talking about daydreaming, the gentle art of thinking about everything and nothing, all at the same time.  I’m talking about the act of thinking.  The activity whose only purpose is to produce thoughts (random and otherwise.)  Basically, we’re so damn busy doing stuff that we never actually think.  Our multitasking universe just doesn’t allow for it.  It’s considered lazy.  So we fill our random time with “busy” that looks and feels like we’re doing something.  The problem is it’s mostly crap like playing with our phones or watching TV.  But we believe action (even something as passive as surfing YouTube) is better than just staring off into space, thinking about it.  Horse feathers!

Take a look at Newton.  The reason Sir Isaac figured out gravity was he was sitting under the apple tree in the first place — doing nothing.  (BTW, I know the story’s a myth but …)  My point is, instead of texting his BFF John Locke a picture of an apple, Newton took the time to contemplate why the apple fell to the ground instead of just floating in the air.  Voila!  Gravity!

I realize we’re not all scientific geniuses like Newton and for the most part ordinary thoughts are — well — ordinary, but so what?  The purpose of thinking is to give the mind something to do.

Look at the person running on a treadmill.  They’re not fleeing for their lives; they’re not chasing anything; they’re not even going anywhere.  Actually, it’s a useless activity except common wisdom dictates people who don’t exercise end up sloppy, fat bastards, lying on a sofa, eating Doritos and watching old Michael Bay movies for the storyline.  Eeeww!

The mind works the same way.  If we don’t exercise it, our decision making, problem-solving and critical analysis become flabby.  A meme is easier to read than an essay, a soundbyte easier to analyze than a debate, and simple problems become overwhelming.  It’s a dangerous road we’re travelling, and if we’re not careful, we could end up in a society wallowing in celebrity worship, entirely dominated by Kim Kardashian’s bum, Donald Trump’s hairstyle and … Hey! Wait a minute … I think I’m going to go find a tree and just sit there for awhile.

The Road To Hell

hellThe problem with life is bad decisions almost always make the best stories.  This is a fact that nobody feels all that comfortable with.  For example, the difference between “We made some tea and watched Gentleman’s Agreement on Netflix” and “We decided to open another bottle of wine” is massive.  One story ends with “We brushed our teeth and went to bed,’ and the other one gets lost somewhere around “After Tom passed out, we painted his ass orange and locked him in a row of grocery carts.”  See what I mean?

Both stories are actually true, BTW.  Obviously, nobody remembers the first one — like — who cares?  However, the second one is the stuff of legend.  It’s the kind of tale we tell at dinner parties.  It’s the one that is our public face.  The one that defines us as interesting.  And we all want to be interesting.

It’s not difficult to recognize the road to salvation.  It generally runs through tea, Netflix and conscientious oral hygiene.  However, the other road — the road to Hell — is paved.   It’s lined with ice cream and alcohol, pretty girls and naughty boys.  It has hundreds of distracted side streets, secluded alleys and boisterous cafes, but never any toilets — anywhere.  It’s the perfect sexual moment interrupted by somebody’s mother, the wild ride to the wrong funeral and the sun-scorched nap on a topless beach.  In fact, the road to Hell is limited only by our innate ability to make mistakes.

Yet it is the road to Hell that protects us from being just another frump on the trudge to the grave.  It gives our lives curves, dents,  depth and colour and lifts us above the relentless bureaucracy of everyday living.  And although the road to Hell doesn’t give life any true meaning, our adventures on it tell the world we showed up and got in the game.  And when we are old and gray and full of sleep, nodding by the fire, it’s the road to Hell we’ll remember, not the dental floss.

The trick is striking a balance between collecting enough uber-cool life stories to wow them in the Old Folks’ Home and staying out of jail.  (I’m still surprised Tom didn’t just call the cops!)

Information Overload

One of the serious side effects of living in the 21st century is the incredible amount of intrusive information that comes our way every day.  I’m not just talking about crap either but high grade ore suitable for framing.  I found out Berlusconi was going down for the count while I was standing in line at McDonald’s, probably before some of his own party members knew it.  Most people will tell you this is a good thing: that information is power (and all that other claptrap.)  This is not true.  Giving too much information to people who don’t want it, need it, or understand it is a dangerous thing.  Information is like any other commodity: when supply overwhelms demand its value decreases.

Let me give you an absurd example.  The Louvre has one of the greatest collections of art in the world.  There’s enough paint on canvas there to wallpaper an entire condo development — with lots left over.  However, talk to any ordinary person (read “non art student”) who’s been there, and after they mention the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and a few others, they invariably run out of things to say.  That’s not because all the other works are second rate.  There’s one huge room filled with wall-to-wall Rubens, for example (which, by the way, was actually commissioned as wallpaper by one of the Medici girls.)  No, it’s because there’s simply too much to see.  At the end of two hours (three hours, max!) the average person just can’t take any more.  The senses shut down, fold up their tents and wander off.  The bratty kid, ying-yanging on the guardrail, gets equal attention to the Titian hanging on the wall behind her.  People just can’t process that much stuff in that length of time.  It’s difficult enough to appreciate the intricacies of a single masterpiece in isolation; it’s impossible to do it when you’ve upped the ante by a thousand.

Information works the same way.  Here’s another absurd example.  There have probably been more words written about the Kardashians this week than anybody else on the planet.  The mega-hours of reporting Kim’s wooing, wedding, build-up and breakup when laid end to end (pardon the old pun) would likely last longer that the marriage itself.  Yet, despite tons of information, even the harshest Kardashifan has no idea what’s going on.  The whole sordid spectacle could be anything from a brilliantly executed publicity stunt to the tragicest love story in the history of Reality TV.  Mere information is helpless if you’re looking into the heart of a Kardashian.

Out of sheer self defence many people make a couple of big mistakes when dealing with the volumes of information coming at them.  First of all, they confuse information with knowledge.  While knowledge is especially useful in a world that’s travelling faster than a speeding Tweet, information on its own is the closest thing you can get to useless without actually going there.  In fact, it’s actually detrimental.  Just because you know something, doesn’t mean you understand it – and that can cause problems.  For example, back when I cared about such things, I knew a bunch of stuff about cars.  I could open the hood and tell you where things were and what they did.  However, even then, as I found out a couple of times, give me a wrench and you better call a tow truck.  I had information but no understanding, and without understanding, I couldn’t postulate far enough to solve even minor problems.  In order to make a reasonable assessment of anything, you have to understand it, not just recognize it exists.

The second big mistake people make about information is assuming it’s an end unto itself.  It isn’t.  Information is the raw material that we build things out of, it is not the final product.  Even though I know the attributes of a right angle triangle, that doesn’t make me Pythagoras.   I might think I am, but unless I have a practical application for a2 + b2 = c2, it could be written in Greek for all the good it does me.  Most of the tons of information we receive is like that: we hardly ever apply it.  It lies dormant; its usefulness wasted by benign neglect.  Essentially, it’s like sitting on the sofa getting all the answers (Questions?) correct on Jeopardy: if we aren’t contestants we’re never going to win any money.  It’s not the information we have that counts; it’s what we do with it.

Here in the 21st century, we believe there is intrinsic value in the possession of information.   We think a well-informed population will naturally make well-informed decisions.  While this is basically true, the problem comes from the minor annoyance that the general population is not well-informed, at all.  They merely have access to information; they’re two different things.  Without understanding and application, the information we do have is useless.  In fact, the tsunami of data that assaults us every day is actually a hindrance to informed decision-making.  Not only do we think we already have the information we need, but in many cases our brains have already shut down from information overload.  Therefore, we have to rely on those comfortable sound bytes and buzzwords we already know to guide us.  The problem is that just isn’t real information: is it?