Road Kill

On the Information Superhighway

A newspaper column is an act of hubris. It says, "I have something to say that no one else is saying in quite the same way." It says, "These words are important enough to take up precious space on the printed page and valuable enough to be sold."

So who's the cocky S.O.B. writing this one?

For the past 18 years, due to a daily job in front of a microphone, I've checked in each morning with multiple news sources. Before the advent of the internet, five newspapers arrived at my doorstep each day, and when the public library opened at 10 a.m. I had access to many more. With the worldwide web, the number of pages and column inches I attempted to read grew to incalculable proportions, bordering on the overwhelming. I perused as much as I could, always hoping the next piece, on the next page, at the next website would be the most interesting.

Where have all those words gone? How vital were any of them?

These days I find myself thinking more about where the words go than where they come from; trillions of words flashing on the screen or on the page each day, all disappearing to some graveyard of thought and expression. What's retained in the memory over the years—one or two columns, maybe, a feature story, a single editorial?

The latest internet blog count is in the hundreds of millions. Is anyone saying anything the Greeks didn't cover 2,000 years ago? Perhaps, but how do I find that rare pearl in a sea of information flotsam and jetsam?

Abe Lincoln spent his boyhood years with very little to read, but what he read, he read often, mainly Shakespeare and the Bible. What does it do to one's mind to read intensively versus extensively? Over and over young Abe would read and reread the same passages, often finding new meaning with each effort. Would today's media armada have fried that young boy's brain? With Shakespeare and the Bible we don't ask where the words have gone. They're still here, still being read and reread. Someone find me a newspaper column that has stood the test of time.

Of course newspaper columns aren't that type of literature. Most exist solely to influence the public opinion of the day, not the thinking of generations, and if they fall short of the former they at least offer water-cooler fodder for 15 minutes on a slow Monday.

But what if we were to learn that the words necessary for a successful, pleasurable existence were covered in a simple handful of works? What if a weekly news magazine kept us adequately abreast of goings-on in the world and a shelf of some two dozen books offered our intellect and imagination all it required for a satisfying, soulful life? Would it change what we did with our day?

Not that I want to place books on any royal pedestal. The French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote way back in 1755, "As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes."

Diderot was writing my column 250 years ago.

Clay Shirky would argue that my musings are older still. He teaches a course on new media at New York University and says my concerns are as old as the library at Alexandria, the first example of more information being in one place than a single person could deal with in a lifetime.

Shirky says that by the time the publishing industry started up in Venice in the mid-1500s, the ability to access more reading material than one could ever hope to wade through became a problem of the educated class, and by the 1800s a problem of the middle class.

Today it's everyone's problem. But Shirky argues it's not an issue of too much information, it's a matter of "filter failure," the inability to know what media one needs and what one doesn't, what serves one well and what is detrimental, or at the very least, wholly unnecessary.

I will admit to struggling with my own filter these days, wondering how to fine-tune it, or possibly rebuild it altogether.

And any columnist worth his salt must acknowledge that his readers' own efforts in developing a filter could, and perhaps should, filter that very column right out of existence. 

 
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