Confessions of an Information Junkie

Looking over the shoulders of my fellow student journalists to see our scores in an Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association competition.

Hi. My name is Adam J. Manley, and I’m addicted to information.

This isn’t a result of spending too much time on social networking sites. This isn’t a result of an increasingly ADHD-addled culture, nor of my own ADHD. The cause isn’t television, the Internet or the rise of instant, mobile communication.

A very young Adam.

Quite frankly, if my craving for constant information input is to be blamed on something, I’d have to blame books.

As a child, I enjoyed reading immensely. I grew up on a farm, where non-familial social interaction was limited. When I wasn’t in school, it was practically nonexistent. As a result, I read quite a lot.

Like any child, fiction was a powerful draw. Science fiction and fantasy books, especially, guided my imagination to what it is today. At the same time, however, I had – and still have – a need to understand what was being taken for granted in these stories. For example, love of science fiction and dinosaurs translated directly into a desire to learn more about astronomy and archaeology. Additonally, any time I’d come across a word I didn’t fully understand, I absolutely needed to know what it meant.

As a result, I would often spend hours reading the household encyclopedia collections – both Compton’s and Britannica – as well as my grandparents’ insanely immense dictionary. That dictionary was simply fascinating, and likely weighed almost as much as I did when I first started flipping through it.

X-Men - The Phoenix SagaI also became obsessed with maps. I read stories that occurred all over the world, and I was always curious as to where those places were. My map fixation, in fact, was almost entirely the fault of my increasing love of all things X-Men.

X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga

From the first grade, the X-Men franchise and anything related to it appealed to me, and the international nature of the stories and teams practically made me salivate. Whether they were rushing off to fictional locations like Muir Island or Genosha, or hanging about in the real world, I could pinpoint exactly where they were on a map.

14-year-old Adam at the state level of the National Geography Bee.

I learned more about geography from researching where various characters came from and traveled to than I ever learned in school. In the eighth grade, I even made it to the state level of the National Geography Bee.

Most of this occurred long before my introduction to the Internet. I can only imagine what I could have learned if I’d had modern resources at my disposal. The information junkie in me shudders with delight with the idea of a younger me having access to the likes of Wikipedia. I’m jealous of the younger generations, and what will be available to them in the future.

My first introduction to the Internet exemplifies my insatiable need to simply know more. about anything and everything. I – at an age not quite considered preteen yet – was visiting my sister while she was attending school at Pacific Lutheran University. At times, during my visits, she would need somewhere to leave me while she went to class, work and all the “grown-up” things college kids do. So I was brought to the computer lab and left under the supervision of her friends there.

Where On Earth is Carmen Sandiego?Computers capable of more than a two-color display of my pursuit of Carmen Sandiego or my wagon on the Oregon Trail were still a very new concept to me. The Internet, a strange thing filled with infinite pages of information on anything I could desire to learn about…well, that completely blew my mind. In time, it also blew the computer lab’s printers.

The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary BookBeing accustomed to books, I determined that I needed to preserve the information I found, in paper form. I printed out pages and pages of websites about X-Men, Calvin and Hobbes and other things that interested me. I filled numerous binders, and in the process went through reams of paper and many cartridges of ink.

If I’m not mistaken, PLU’s computer lab still has in place both age and printing limits established as a result of my activity.

Now, I will grant that greater access to more information also leads to a more widespread dissemination of misinformation. People often point to the potential inaccuracy of sites like Wikipedia, due to their ever-changing, open authorship. People like to say that because of that potential, sites like these should be dismissed, as if they were no more than the collected ramblings of street corner crackpots.

Personally, I think people who say things like that need to get off their high horse.

There is always the potential for information to be incorrect, slanted, outdated or even a blatant lie. This is not a new trait brought about by the rise of the wiki. The potential for information to be, in some manner, false or misleading existed long before anyone even conceived of the Internet. What is considered to be Factual Truth is ever-changing, and as objective as everyone tries to be, Social Truth is always affected by personal opinions.

These are things I learned long before my discovery of the Internet. I read countless books on astronomy that blatantly disagreed with each other. That which was declared Truth in a book published in 1980 would be completely reversed in a book published in 1988. Science is always changing its mind, while simultaneously insisting that anyone who disagrees with current scientific truths is misguided, uneducated or just plain wrong.

On the social side of things, I always noticed – moreso as I grew older – that the news was never as objective as it claimed to be. People can whine all they like about the Liberal Media and the Conservative Media – how one or the other is taking over all the news outlets and clearly that’s going to cause the end of the world – but it’s impossible to be truly objective. Even a reporter that seems 100% objective will subconsciously insert their opinion in the sort of wording they use, which quotes they use and which part of the story they spend the most time on. We’re all only human, and reporters are not exempt from that failing.

Besides, the most effective way of conveying the truth is rarely the objective, detached manner we’ve come to associate with proper reporting. The idea that the reporter can’t be part of the story can, at times, be detrimental to the story.

Gonzo journalism – point-of-view reporting popularized by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson– is in many ways more truthful than standard, objective reporting. It acknowledges that the reporter, by nature of being a human being with a life and an inpidual way of seeing things, is inherently part of the story. In reality, we’re all part of each others’ stories, and simultaneously part of a much grander story that we can never see the whole of.

Which brings me back to information addiction. With modern social networking, a larger portion of that story is readily available for everyone. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the like all give us more insight into the lives of others, from friends to people on the other side of the globe. It’s fascinating, and it has increased my hunger for constant input more than a hundredfold.

At the time of this writing, I have 613 friends on Facebook, all of whom I try to actively keep tabs on. I follow 663 people and news organizations on Twitter. I am subscribed to 739 accounts on YouTube. Recently, Google released a new social feature called Google Buzz. This morning, I found myself finding person after person after person that I wanted to follow. Despite this being my first day really paying attention to it, my Buzz feed is already growing into quite a steady stream of new posts.

There are many who see my addiction as a bad thing. In conversations on the topic with others, it’s frequently implied – and occasionally flatly stated – that I need to get a life. I’m told that, obviously, I would not be able to take in as much information if I were leading a happy, healthy life. Even the Bible makes it look like a bad idea, beginning as early as the Book of Genesis. The original sin, after all, was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge.

But why must I choose between living my life and learning new things? Why can’t I both experience and be aware of the experiences of others? Why must being more informed about a perse number of things be seen in such a negative light?

It’s true that information addiction can consume the whole of a person’s time and efforts, yes. It’s also true that, at least sometimes, we all need to slow down and take a break from a fast-paced world that’s always trying to fill our heads with everything from the political situation in Nepal to what kind of eyeliner Paris Hilton thinks is hot this week. But that doesn’t mean we need to avoid input, or even diminish it. We just need to take a step back when it becomes overwhelming.

There’s something to be said for the simpler life, I admit, but it’s not for all of us. Furthermore, human nature fights against that simpler, uncomplicated life. As much time as I spent absorbing information as a child, I spent an equal amount of time hiking in the woods or lying on my back, staring at the sky. Living that simpler side of life simply made me more thirsty for information. I wanted to know why the clouds were that shape, what various insects were and why they behaved the way they did, what plants were edible to which animals and so much more.

The more time I spent doing nothing, far from the flood of information of television or books, the more time I had to wonder how things worked, the more my imagination went wild wondering about what was and what could be. This was a wonderful thing, but ultimately it would have been frustrating and pointless if all I had done was continue to wonder and imagine. At some point, I had to seek the knowledge I craved.

The Matrix (10th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]This is how many of us, if not all of us to a certain degree, are wired; as simple a life as one tries to live, there’s always more to discover, and that pull is too enticing and wonderful to ignore. In high school, studying various mythologies and religious texts, a teacher once referenced The Matrix by asking the class to make the same choice Neo made: the blue pill or the red pill – blissful ignorance or a chance to learn the truth, to discover what’s really out there. What we weren’t told until after we picked was the comparison between the pill scene and the temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden. The red pill was the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Most of us chose the red pill.

As often as some may complain about the supposedly downward spiral known as progress, it’s not something that can just be halted. In the end, most of us would give in to our innate curiosity. Most of us would end up eating the forbidden fruit.

All we can do, in the end, is try to control it, and guide it. Instead of hindering progress, instead of fighting the constant, free flow of information, we need to embrace it, find the best possible uses for it. Most importantly, we must be careful not to let it wholly overwhelm us – something that would happen even more destructively the more we try to fight it and hold it back.

Change is inevitable. I, for one, welcome it. I want to see where we’re going, and enjoy the ride there. There’s no telling what we could learn. Let the world be flooded with millions of different ways to receive and disperse information. Let the people share and learn without being hindered by the idea that it’s somehow wrong. Let us all learn more about each other, and the universe we live in.

Let the future come.

2 Comments

  1. I also share an insatiable hunger for information. There is so much information and it is only going to exponentially increase. Things change so fast that we almost *have* to be "plugged in" at all times, unless we're the type who take the time to shape our own information streams.

    "A downward spiral called progress" – I never really understood why people would call it this. The biggest problem people have, in my opinion, is that they allow themselves to be constantly bombarded by information that they don't really want or need. There really should be some courses (for a lack of a better term) for the common person to learn how to create information streams that mean more to them. (Hmm, perhaps I should create a blog series on this idea..)

    My favorite thing about the Internet is the ability to become social in a very global sense, without being forced to censor the self that is us.

    Information should not be a taboo, nor should it ever become one. One of my favorite quotes: "Information wants to be free."

    Hopefully this made some sense, I've got a podcast going while trying to think out my comment in full…

  2. Digital Popcorn.

    Surfing the Internet was like eating digital popcorn. You go into the bowl reaching for a small handful of items. Then you keep reaching back in because everything is so delicious. The problem is that the bowl is endless and having a non-stop diet of popcorn can leave you feeling more than a little sick.

    Using the Internet constructively is a different matter. If you go in limiting yourself to the items you immediately need, like following a recipe for a sound meal, and keep on task – you can get your work done.

    The problem is that folk tend to think that surfing is searching. I know it’s a problem for me. I’ve always been easily distracted. During college I gave up watching television as I knew it would affect my study habits even having a boob tube in the room. It’s a constant battle for me now to stay on task when I’m facing an endless source of knowledge and entertainment in the same box I’m supposed to be getting my work done through. I find it necessary to place limits on myself, and even turning the damn thing off so that I can get work done.

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