“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” – John Naisbitt
It was late in the summer of 2012—a standard weekday. My car, which smelled faintly of wet dog and stale fast food, was winding along the lakefront road which I travel each day on my way to work. The radio, into which I have only programmed a single station, was tuned to that very station: NPR.
Almost immediately after pulling out of my apartment complex, the Morning Edition hosts began what was just another in an endless series of stories about the current state of the 2012 Presidential election. During the 15 minute drive to my office, I heard what Romney’s and Obama’s debates over immigration, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, the economy, taxes, health care, and gun rights. I heard a rehashing of President Obama’s first term in office. I heard the opinions of average men and women on the street. I heard polling numbers. I heard state-by-state forecasts of election results. I heard pundits pontificating on what each candidate needed to do in order to win some small segment of the voting population.
I heard a lot of information during that short trip. None of it was new. And certainly none of it was news. Just information. Loads and loads of worthless information.
About three minutes before arriving to work, I heard a particularly ignorant citizen make some comment about the sorry state of the country, or health care, or the free-loading nature of the poor (I don’t remember the specific slight), and I lost my temper. I released a guttural scream, slammed my hands against the steering wheel, then shut off the radio. At that moment, I vowed that I wouldn’t turn on the news again until after the election was over. Turns out: I still haven’t turned the news back on, and it’s been nearly a year.
There was once a time when I truly believed that to expose myself to the wider world of information was a valiant pursuit—that the sheer act of absorbing information would make me more enlightened, more intelligent, more worldly. I believed that the increase in information would make me more tolerant of others, more global in my perspective. And so, imagining myself as some well-read, thoughtful scholar of the world, I devoured information.
Sometimes, the gluttony was purposeful. Others, it was simply happenstance. I would seek out news sites. I subscribed to blogs. I clicked on nearly every article that a Facebook friend or Twitter follower would place on their feed. I read stories about natural childbirth, gay rights, health care, corporate malfeasance, costume and prop making, audiobooks, religion, law, police brutality, poverty, hipster culture, finance, investing, business strategy, politics, and gun control. I read about the wars overseas, and the difficult lives of those on the Saharan subcontinent. I listened to science podcasts, personal finance podcasts, cooking podcasts. I devoured audiobooks on the science of the brain, the processed food industry, and the power of introverts in an extroverted world. I poured over every article about each newly developed technology or new product release.
I truly feasted upon the information of the world. I loved the idea that I could talk knowledgably about a wide variety of topics. With the exception of sports, I can probably carry on at least a surface level conversation about even the most obscure of topics. Because I felt it was my duty as a human to ingest as much of the world’s information as humanly possible. That is, after all, what makes an intelligent, wise, and well-rounded individual, isn’t it?
It wasn’t until just recently, however, that I was able to put my finger on why my pursuit of information was so frustrating to me. Most of the information I had gathered was without a point or frame of reference. It was worthless.
We live in an information age. We are surrounded by information, bombarded by information. As we just saw during this previous week, we have information shoved down our throats 24 hours a day by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox “News.” We have articles cluttering up the internet on the evils of gluten, the danger of having a hospital birth, or the trend of people getting married later and later in life. Never mind whether or not all, or even some, of that information is accurate—it’s information, and that’s all that matters.
But does all of this information, constantly filling our brains, our time, or our lives, actually do us any good? Does that fact that several of my co-workers spent the majority of one day this week streaming live news coverage of the manhunt for the Boston bombers make any difference? What good were the millions of tweets saying “My thoughts are with the people of Boston?” It’s a nice thought, but do you think the people of Boston really know or care that the thoughts of a 34-year-old project manager in Redmond, WA are with them?
I can tell you what temperatures basil plants require before you can safely plant them outdoors. I can tell which brands of paper work best with various fountain pen inks. I can explain what an expander and a gate can do in audio recording. I can teach you how to post-process photos. I understand how to edit your hosts file on your computer. I could walk you, step by step, through what led up to the financial meltdown in 2007 and 2008. I could explain to you that ½ a cup of store-bought spaghetti sauce has the same amount of sugar as 3 Oreo cookies.
What I can’t do is tell you the date of my parents’ anniversary. I couldn’t tell you the birthdays of my nieces and nephew. I couldn’t even tell you the names of 85% of my neighbors. I couldn’t tell you the last time I spoke with some of my dearest friends from earlier in my life.
When I instituted my NPR blackout back in 2012, I spent a lot of time worrying that I was going to become ignorant by missing out on the important events of the world at large. Instead, I had become completely ignorant of the world around me. I was so engrossed by the failure of our congress to act like adults and compromise that I never bothered to realize if my co-workers or neighbors were struggling. I worked so hard at becoming global that I had completely forgotten about local: the sphere in which my efforts actually had the potential to do some good in this world.
The information age is, in many ways, a miraculous age. It is astonishing—the sheer breadth and depth of information that each person has at his or her fingertips. But despite this information, we are not becoming more knowledgeable. And we are certainly not becoming more civilized. A simple scroll through the YouTube comments section of almost any video is enough to demonstrate that. And I would argue that it’s not making us any happier. The age of the social network is not connecting us to people in more personal or intimate ways. Would watching the 24 hour coverage of the Boston bombing help my sister, a stay-at-home mom with a 1-year-old and a special needs 6-year-old, in any way? Would it help her be a better mother, wife, or person in general? Or would it, instead, make her sad, unsettled, and frustrated that the world seems to be falling apart, and there’s nothing she could do about it?
I have come to realize that there is a very big difference between seeking information and seeking knowledge. And I think it’s time we start focusing a little less on the former and a little more on the latter. Information is a pre-requisite to knowledge; you can’t receive knowledge without the informational building blocks. However, information for information’s sake is worthless. Knowledge grants perspective and inspires action, while information simply informs.
These days, I don’t watch the news. I don’t go seeking out tech websites, or news feeds. I never listen to NPR. I don’t know (or care) what the federal government is up to at the moment about our budget or debt ceiling. And it’s been fascinating how much my perspective has shifted. For instance, while the Boston bombing was a sad event in which a few people lost their lives, on that same day in Iraq, 27 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a whole variety of explosions across the country. Knowing this information doesn’t help me in any way. Frankly, I’d prefer not to know. I couldn’t have stopped either event, I can’t do anything to fix either event, and so all I can do is live under the false impression that the whole world is going to hell, when really, these sorts of events go on around the world, and have for centuries. Knowing all the bad things that have always happened doesn’t mean that they’re happening more often. It simply means that you know about it.
So, rather than spend my day glued to the television, watching minute by minute as CNN reporters kept giving us bad information in the name of being the first to deliver news, I helped a neighbor carry a heavy piece of furniture. I wrote a letter to my grandmother who lives in a nursing home in Ohio, and I chatted with a friend who had a rough day of her own.
I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but to prove a point: had I chosen to rush home, flip on the TV, and watch CNN’s coverage of the bombing manhunt, I would have gathered more information about a part of the world 3500 miles away, for which I could do nothing. I would have been able to discuss the situation with my co-workers the next day. But instead, I actually tried to make a small impact on the portion of the world in which I can have some impact.
And to me, that’s knowledge. Information is just information. But knowledge is information that you can use. And if that means that I remain a little more ignorant of the greater world, that’s okay. I’d rather try to make a difference where trying will, in fact, make a difference.