I’d like to comment on the Greek debt crisis. But I don’t know anything about it. Zip..or, as they say in Athens – μηδέν. I do, however, know how to say zero in Greek, thanks to Google Translate. At least for the next few minutes. I also happen to know rather a lot right now about the Tour de France, how to wire RV batteries, how to balance pool chemicals, how to write obituaries and most of the plotlines for the Showtime series Homeland. I certainly know more about all those things than the average person. Tomorrow, I’ll probably know different stuff. And I will retain almost nothing. But if you ask me what in the world is happening right now, I’ll likely draw a blank. I’d say it’s all Greek to me, but a certain Mediapost columnist already stole that line. Damn you Bob Garfield!
I’m not really sure if I’m concerned about this. After all, I’m the one who has chosen not to watch the news for a long time. My various information sources feed me a steady diet of information, but it’s all been predetermined based on my interests. I’m in what they call a “filter bubble.” I’ve become my own news curator and somewhere along the line, I’ve completely filtered out anything to do with the Greek economy. It’s because I’m not really interested in the Greek economy, but I’m thinking maybe I should be.
(Incidentally, am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that the word “economy” comes from – you guessed it – the Greek words for “house” and “management”)
The problem is that I have a limited attention span. My memory capacity is a little more voluminous, but there are definite limits to that, as well. To make matters worse, Google is making me intellectually lethargic. I don’t try as hard to remember stuff because I don’t have to. Why learn how to count to 10 in Greek when I can just look it up when I need to. I’m not alone in this. We’re all going down the same blind cornered path together. Sooner or later, we’ll all run into a major crisis we never saw coming. And it’s because we’ve all been looking in different places.
40 years ago, to be well informed, you had to pay attention to mainstream news sources. It was the only option we had. We all got feed the same diet of information. Some of us retained more than others, but we all dined at the same table. Our knowledge capacity was first filled from these common news sources. Then, after that, we’d fill whatever nooks and crannies were left with whatever our unique interests might be. But we all, to some extent, shared a common context. Knowledge may not have been deep, but it was definitely broad.
Now, if I choose to learn more about the Greek economy, I certainly have plenty of opportunities to do so. But I’d be starting with a blank slate. It would take some work to get up to speed. So I have to decide whether it’s worth the effort for me to inform myself. Is the return worth the investment? Something has to tip the balance to make it important enough to learn more about whatever it is the Greeks are referendumming (referendering?) about. And in the meantime, there will be a lot of other things competing for that same limited supply of information gathering attention. Tomorrow, for instance, it might become really important for me to find out how close BC is to legalizing pot, or what the wild fire hazard is in Northern Saskatchewan, or what July’s weather is like in Chiang Mai. All of these things are relatively easy to find, but I have to reserve enough retention capacity to use the information once I find it. Information may want to be free, but the resources required to utilize it depletes our limited stores of cognitive ability.
Perhaps we’re saving more of our attention for on demand information requirements. Or maybe we’re just filtering out more of what we used to call news. Whatever the cause, I think we’re loosing our common cultural context, bit by byte. A community is defined by what it has in common, and the more technology allows us to pursue our individual interests, the more we surrender the common narratives that used to bind us.