“The past is a world, and not a void of gray haze.” – Thomas Carlyle
Each day, an innumerable amount of headlines appear anew, from the refugee crisis that is currently unravelling to the lists that advertise “10 New Super-foods that Will Help You Keep Off the Weight.” While there is no shortage of information – even that which is revisited and repeated – the way that information is consumed has been completely altered by the prominence of technology, by smart phones and tablets that have become ubiquitous.
There was a day when journalism and information was often absorbed over a morning coffee, in the privacy of the home or at a café table – with those unruly, flimsy sheets of newspaper having to be pulled tentatively from each proceeding paper until one page would finally give way to another. More common than not, the news is now something that exists in the mad rush of our lives, on the train as we’re being elbowed by strangers or walking down the sidewalk on the way to work.
Only 20 years ago, before the Internet became the primary medium for communication, the forms of media we had were far more limited; now, an estimated 211 million pieces of data are created on the web every minute, a number that can only increase. This format for information digestion does not lead to a deeper read, however, or more explication – instead it is often the most scandalous or most pertinent topic that gets absorbed, and only by degree. But where has the time gone for deeper comprehension?
History is made in the moment, but the larger truths it reveals are only understood when the dust has settled, after what constitutes opinion versus fact has been accurately broached. With so much information, and a system that is of-the-moment, there is generally little to no context for these headlines that must be quickly consumed. How do we successfully thrive without recognition of the past and its trajectory?
In 1985, the cultural critic Neil Postman explored the impacts of television and technology on society, stating that:
“Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense…a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained.”
If anything, this peek-a-boo world of information that Postman refers to can be a metaphor for our nutritious appetites. While sugar, salty foods and alcohol seem to be cultural favorites and are advertised most frequently, they do not provide true nourishment for the human body; like information, they are the easiest to consume because their pleasures – or facts – are so immediate.
The absorption of this immediate information does not destroy altogether, but when it is considered an appropriate replacement for actual explication of an event and its history, it poses a serious danger. In truth, any pretense of this type of information providing an objective recognition of reality is akin to pretending that a McDonald’s cheeseburger represents real sustenance, when the information and the food are only filling an empty space – without knowledge or real nourishment.
In Fear and Trembling, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explored the idea of a person without history, of the doom that they are left to:
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man…if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw — how empty then and comfortless life would be.”
Beyond the individual, doesn’t this lack of eternal consciousness have the same impact on society?