Saturday afternoon, 1989. The Star Store. Dropped off by my mom, the next two hours are mine alonejust me and the store of comic booksenough time to rifle through all of the new stuff and plenty of time to meticulously pick my way through the bagged and backboarded back issues. Its a ritual, this inventory, a ritual that needs silence, attention, a long span of uninterrupted time, and a devotion to the artifact. Like Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you locate and handle your prize with reverence and care. Anything this valuable you know has been booby-trapped.
But theres another side to the ritual of comic book inventory, and thats the overwhelming splendor of the store. Its not the Star Store itself, which is just a narrow storefront in a one-parking-lot shopping center in a slowly decaying part of town with its chubby, schlubby clerks who dont ever see you, even when youre paying your way out. Instead its the splendor of what the store holds, the accrual of all those comic books, the accrual of all that drawn meaningall of the adventure and the collectability of the adventure. Its panic-inducing. Theres so much to look at, to visit, to experience, to consider possibly maybe one day someday buying, that two solid uninterrupted hours doesnt begin to seem long enough. More than once, with a sweaty elated dread, Ive had to go to the bathroom here, something released from within those comic book bags that sends my intestines roiling, a weeks waiting suddenly loosening.
To combat this overwhelmingness, Ive limited myself to one micro-nichethe series The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, specifically those issues drawn by Todd McFarlane. Part of this is due to how I was introduced to comics by G, whose definition of what was worth getting and what wasnt was always clear and easily reference-able. And part was due to the characters, complicatedly shy Peter Parker and seductively frightening Venom. The concept of an alter ego was one thing for a twelve-year-old, but the concept of a symbiotean alien lifeforce that attaches to your body and amplifies your faults!well, that was just clearly applicable to your everyday existence. And then finally there were the drawingswonderfully exaggerated, even for comics, jaggedly angled, Spider-Man and Peter Parker both aggressively doe-eyed.
McFarlanes work had likable traits in and of itself, but the important part was that he was easy to focus on. This self-imposed limit worked wonders. It erected invisible barriers within the Star Store. It ordered my search, gave me limits within which to work. I could spend the majority of my time plumbing that brief series of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man for those McFarlane-drawn issues. I could divert myself with the occasional foray for other McFarlane-related content. (Hadnt he drawn a Batman comic at some point?) Once there, in my appointed section, the despair had a lair in which to live, a niche to fill with my pre-adolescent pathos. Once situated, time flew.
Tuesday morning, 2007. The Library Lab. Today is Library Orientation Day. Welcome. One of my favorite times of the semester, I stand to the side of the white board, playing McMahon to the librarians Carson, and listen to the lecture about the librarys numerous databases. I love this talk. Im a frequent interjectionist. If the librarian and I are simpatico, we tend to spin off into a mutually reinforced bout of wonderment at the sheer cool ability of what you can do at a university library these days. You can search the OED from your dorm room! You can IM a librarian from the coffee shop! You can set the databases against one another to see whichll give you the ever-prized Full Text. The students are unimpressed. They look up from checking their email, from monitoring their Facebook, and they give us the universal face, the face that every teacher probably sees, a face that speaks of a generational divide so wide that no intricate references to Seinfeld or Superbad will rectify it. It is the look that young people give old people.
I tell my students that they are living in a time when the very meaning of going to college has changed. I tell them that the intellectual work they do here, the gathering, the assimilatingthe building of their own body of knowledge from a preexisting body of knowledge floating in the etheris changing. The material conditions of learning have changed.
They give me the look. I re-tack.
The dream of a universal library, portable, searchable, always ever-presently overhead, isnt that much of a stretch anymore.
I tell them that they can access so much now, so quickly, so easily. It makes the relative convenience of microfilm, with its sickening sidewalk rush of gray, seem primeval. The amount of information they can access now without even having to physically enter the library is astounding and its only getting more astounding. What with the Amazon Kindle being the latest step toward a digital reader people might actually buy, and with Googles determination to scan and make searchable all human knowledge, and with the constant spittle-chinned cheering of such gurus and mavericks as Wireds Kevin Kelly, the dream of a universal library, portable, searchable, always ever-presently overhead, isnt that much of a stretch anymore. Arent they excited about this? Dont they see the consequences? Never again will I need to hear I couldnt find any sources for my paper, because there will be no such thing as no sources. The world will officially be sourced.
They give me the look.
But I realize, as I preach this to them, that this vision of the universal library, and even the current reality of the amazingly convenient Internet, contains problems. Like all technologies it casts its own type of shadow. It giveth as it taketh. So as where Microsoft Word can fix your misspelling, it also gradually relieves you of the need to know how to spell, just as Texas Instruments has relieved me of the need to know how to perform long division. And heres where my enthusiasm for Ubiquitous Endless Search hits a wall. If its easier to find information about almost anything now, it also makes the act of becoming informedbecoming truly educated about any subjectthat much more difficult.
Whereas food, for the developed world, was once scarce and valuable, so was information. Whats the news? But now having enough foodagain, for certain privileged corners of the world with McDonalds and wi-fiis not a problem; in fact, having too much food is the problem. The poorest states, within the United States, are also the fattestwhat is vital to life endangers it, too. The same thing seems to be occurring with information.
Internet cheerleaders often say information wants to be free, but thats not quite right. What information wants, if anything, is more information.
Internet cheerleaders often say information wants to be free, but thats not quite right. What information wants, if anything, is more information. To be educated is to realize your own ignorance about a subject, and to be well educatedto be informed in any mature, responsible wayis to realize your almost overwhelming ignorance of almost everything. Its like buying a house and discovering, each day you come home from work, that theres another room that you didnt know was there earlier in the morning. And so the information you find educates but it also shines its Platonic cave-light back on you: you need still more information. Knowing creates the hunger for more knowing. Information feeds back on itself; the result of a search sends you off on another search.
And so who cares? I dont have any problems navigating the coursing multiple streams of data and noise, you might say.
What happens, Im arguing, is that being informed about a subjectlets say its the U.S. government and its current democratic healthbecomes fraught by the sheer inability to be truly informed. As David Foster Wallace mentions in his introduction to this past years Best American Essays, its often necessary now to subcontract this information gathering out to some trusted entitya blogger, a cable news channel, etc.who will do that gathering and interpreting for you. When I asked my students this questionwhere do you get your information from?one student shrugged and said, my people, a perfect encapsulation of what Im talking about. You need people, now. You need your own entourage to screen for you, from you. There is so much noise, it becomes difficult to know what to think, so you find an agreeable presence that will collect and tell you what to think.
Thissubcontracting your choice about what information to receive, and howmight be the first response to the multiplicity of data, the absurd wealth of information we now experience not just as actively educating college students but as normal everyday Joes. A second response might be called a sort of willed silence. A response that says, Yes, I know all those facts and figures and stories and entertainments are out there, but I will not know them. It would be like living on the coast and never ever going to the beachyou know its there, youve heard about it, but youre not actually going down there.
I find this response almost enticing, creating a yurt of the mind, protectively erected around ones brain at work, at home, at play, a monastic focus on the few chosen ingredients for living. This might be one reason why Im fascinated by modernist architecture, specifically as it manifests itself in home décor and possession maintenance. At the trivial, untheoretical end, you find it in websites and books and TV programs devoted to uncluttering objects from your life. (Turns out the solution is to buy prettier boxes.) But at the theoretical, idealistic end of the spectrum, you see its about detaching as much as organizing. Think of the spirit of Massimo Vignellis desk, with only its single mechanical pencil and a blank sheet of paper. The image is a sort of exotic camping within civilization, refusing the domestic detritus. It would be beautiful, purifying, cold, nihilisticnothing to think with, nothing to love or link with!it would be horribly great.
A drastic example, sure. A third response is a mixture of the first twothe rise of the specialist. If being truly educated now means recognizing that you are overwhelmingly ignorant and that this is your default condition, the specialist chooses what she will be ignorant about. I will know everything there is to know about Michel de Montaigne, the specialist says to herself; everything else gets the back of my hand. Perhaps this is the key, choosing your ignorance, embracing the rising tide and its costs.
For instance, one of the subjects that Ive decidedwithout formally decidingto know as much about as I can is Philip Roth. Everything Philip Rothrelated, I consumefrom the heights of the latest novel to the lows of the latest blog post. Uncredentialed, unguided, uncontrolled, I lurch about like a club-footed scholar, dragging a holey net. Which leads me to such absurd activities as happening on an interview with Jonathan Franzen where he expresses some disparaging opinions about Philip Roth. Except its in Spanish. So I translate it using one of those online translators, so the text comes out like a bad SNL skit, all so I can see what Jonathan says about Philip. (He doesnt like Philip.) Finding this, deciphering it, I am momentarily elated. I am truly an informed and educated individual.
But now, like the hoarder of Beanie Babies or a collector of Civil War artifacts, the rooming house of my mind is gradually cluttered by this information, this literary lint. I feel, in a way, smarter, but I feel trivialized by my own addictive urge to feel smart. I mean, it would be one thing if I had someone to give this smartness to. But its inert. It simply shines a light on my own dark, dank desire to be smart.
So what to do? Perhaps Im just overthinking it. Perhaps its like any new technology. At first the use of the technology seems complex and intrudes, but eventually the technology is folded into lifes routine and becomes an unconscious tool, useful precisely because its immediately at hand, immediately useful like hands.
Maybe its like driving a stick shift. It works best when it becomes second nature. Dont think about doing it. Just do it. If you contemplate the weird physical and mental procedure youve got to do, youre going to wreck. The trick is doing it enough so that doing it becomes thoughtlesschoosing your ignorance, once again.
In truth I currently vacillate between these different solutions. At times searching feels like a kind of informational flying, or swinging, where I go from window to window, spun only by the thin tensile thread of the latest link. But other times, I hesitate. A question pops into my head, and I think: whatever you do, dont Google it. Because beginning a search, grabbing that golden prize of information, is rewarding in itself, but theres also the premonition of more knowledge, further searching, and as soon as you hit search, the boulder that represents all that you dont know but could possibly know begins sliding down toward you.
Last night, avoiding finishing this essay, feeling like I was rambling, cluttering rather than essaying, I got distracted by a movie, Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey. A movie Id never seen. So, alone, unmotivated to break the televisions tractor beam, I watched, and I was mystified, particularly by the final act, which begins with a race through a Jupiter of abstract color and ends with a floating in utero fetus. I sat there, watching credits roll, ruminating.
And then, after some spanless span of time, I went and Googled it.
And for the next two hours I read about it, read about what I had just experienced.
And now today, finishing this, I remember the sound about the sound but not the sound itself. For audio feedback to occur, there must be three ingredients: the instrument that creates the sound, the microphone that picks up the sound, and the speaker that projects the sound.
I am the microphone, the film the instrument, and the Internet the amplified sound. Before long, the amplified sound feeds the mic, whos craving more input, and the original sound is forgotten.
And now, like a rock star with nothing left to sing, I leave the stage to the high-pitched, steadily escalating wail of sound begetting sound begetting sound begetting sound.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. Read his interview with Charles D’Ambrosio, his essay on the Brad Vice plagiarism incident, and his review of The Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick.
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