March 1999
s m u g
by Leslie Harpold

Take Time to Chew

One of the best things about human relationships is the exchange of information. As a long time fan of even the most innocuous physical contact, and an avid fan of a support system in times of need, one of the best things about human relationships is getting put down a little by our friend the Internet. Blame whomever you like -- Yahoo, AltaVista, or a culture that changes so rapidly it demands you constantly be expanding the variety of topics on which you are supposed to be conversationally fluent, we may be getting a little too informed for our own good.

Let me say from go that I'm 100% pro expanding your knowledge base, I'm all for learning things outside your realm to improve your perspective on the world. What I see happening online though, are people becoming experts in things they have never, and likely will never have any experience with.

Face it, that information you have about the taxonomy of portals is more than likely irrelevant to your world. Even more glaring an example is his gem fresh from meme central: "On the internet you can sell dollar bills for ninety cents and still make a profit." This is an incomplete explanation and soon all our pull quotes will have to come with disclaimer as banal as the "Warning, Coffee may be hot" text on McDonald's cup lids.

Consumption rates are far higher online because of the rapidity that information can be distributed, which is anything but a new assertion, but the mitigating factor is always left out, and that is that many people online would self-select as the kind who want to be the first to know something. Anything culty or quirky immediately saturates from the Hamsterdance to the Metallica Drummer! video. In fact, let's use this last gem as a case study.

Five years ago the Metallica video would have gotten into the hands of one wrong person, who would have given it to a friend who they thought likes that sort of stuff who would have dubbed five copies for his other tape trading public access TV watching freak friends. And so on and so on and so on. Now, it's sold on the internet, the topic of party chat, a badge of honor to show just how caught up your are with niche society. It is now de rigeur for all 21-35 year olds to not only have heard of Metallica Drummer! but to have seen it. Easy too, since a video store in San Francisco is selling it.

It's small offbeat things like this that make people feel like they're in on something, enhance the sense of private gift cultures and build taste related bonds between subsets of social circles. Now with the web, it's all starting to fade. No more sense of propriety in discovery and pride in being the pointer to something neat, a lot morescrambling to keep up. This goes with more serious pursuits as well. I can sit with the Reuters news ticker streaming across my desktop and watch news as it happens, watch stock prices roll by, and read the intimate diaries of fifteen year olds in cities I've never heard of. Simultaneously if I want to. I can read magazines before they hit the newsstands. Staying ahead of the curve has never been easier.

What's missing is the time to filter this information before it gets ingested. So much comes so fast - URLs in email, links within articles, browsers have become indiscriminate clickers, consuming anything that's more about... because of the fear that lack of information will render them inadequate, after all, isn't a little knowledge a dangerous thing?

Exposure is starting to replace experience, and knowing where to get more information is replacing real knowledge. It's a world full of book reports. "I read that this is how it works," is the new substitute for "In my experience." The armchair experts may take over. As miraculous as the human mind is, we may not be evolved enough to handle all this information, since the Internet has so drastically upped the speed of delivery, the mind is asked to take on more, faster than it ever has, historically. People don't pick up the phone when we need to know something, calling a friend who has experience, but go online and start rifling through the search engines looking for answers. Getting facts from strangers who may or may not know what they're talking about. All we have to go on their word that their experience is first hand.

Stripped of the ability to keep insider information inside, the web is pushing people to go for volume over quality in consumption of information. As inside jokes and tidy explanations get reduced to memes with very short life cycles, the burn rate is elevated unnaturally. In this climate, it may be time to rethink how much and how fast we're able to process all this information and when more than enough becomes too much.

in the junk drawer

and such
and such

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