When does an abundance of information at our fingertips actually hurt us?
First, an admission: even though I’m only in my 30s, I’ve been known to occasionally have some serious Luddite tendencies/ get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon-ness coursing through my veins.
Case in point: I was one of the last in my age group to embrace texting (I still hate it), I was one of the last in my age group to get a smartphone, and I still sport a Hotmail email address (what’s the point in changing?). However, even I wouldn’t go so far as to claim the internet is a bad thing. The internet (as you know) provides us near-instant access to a literal world of information and media — not to mention allows me to order pretty much anything imaginable and get it delivered to my doorstep in two days. What’s not to like?
Still, sometimes the internet is a bad thing.
To be clear, I’m not simply saying this from the perspective of “too much screen time/ get off social media/ go outside and play.” Those arguments have all been made ad nauseum and, while they probably have validity, they’re a little trite at this point.
I want to go further, and instead say that sometimes merely having access to information and media is a bad thing. Not half the time. Not even 20% of the time. But some small, but not insignificant, percentage of the time, we’d be better off without the internet’s magical access to information/ media/ stuff.
And that small but not insignificant percentage may be the percentage that matters most.
What follows is my argument.
Remember the last time you tried a new restaurant. How did you decide on that restaurant? Assuming you’re under sixty, chances are extremely high that before visiting said establishment you read reviews online. In fact, I’d say that even if one of your friends or family members personally recommended the place to you, there’s still a reasonable chance you’d still gone online “just to make sure.” This probably holds true for the last movie you saw, the last hotel you stayed in, the last tourist destination you visited, the last book you read, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Now, you’re probably saying: What’s the problem? It’s an awesome thing that all of this information is available since in this way I can avoid shitty restaurants, movies, hotels, books, and tourist destinations.
And I would say you’re right.
But you’re also wrong.
Some small but not insignificant percentage of the time.
But maybe not in the way you might think.
The whole concept of the review seems to follow from the a priori assumption that the pleasure one derives from, say, eating at San Jose’s famed falafel drive-in or hiking Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park is directly related to the objective “goodness” of said thing. If an eatery or tourist destination is objectively good, we will have a good experience there. This makes sense; however, it is also woefully under sophisticated.
My argument is that, while a part of the value of our experience is related to the objective goodness of the thing we’re doing, another part has to do with how a thing stacks up against our expectations. There’s nothing like being pleasantly surprised; however, in today’s era of smartphone hegemony, nearly every possible new experience we face has now been filtered by others, meaning it’s become almost impossible to be pleasantly surprised by anything.
For those more mathematically inclined, let’s look at this another way. My hypothesis is basically that the value of our experiences follow a formula like:
Total Experience = X (Goodness) + Y (Goodness-Expectations)
where X and Y are some multiples that vary depending on the situation.
Obviously depending on the values of X and Y, expectations become more or less important relative to the objective goodness of the experience; but even if you were to give X a relatively high value, what you’d find is pretty interesting and I think descriptive of our world. That is, that through the mountains of information the internet provides us, we’ve managed to remove a lot of bad experiences from our life; however, through our inability to be pleasantly surprised, we also lower the upside of our experiences.
Put another way, the internet has given us a lot of pretty good experiences at the cost of the occasional awesome one. This seems like a pretty apt description of life in the modern world: we’ve sacrificed the transcendent for a large reduction in the mildly bad.
All of this logic doesn’t just hold true for the phenomenon of reviews. Let’s think about maps and directions. Today, with the exception of those rare instances where there is no cell service, or our battery dies unexpectedly, we now have access to near perfect directions to anywhere, making the experience of getting lost as antiquated as, say, the yellow pages.
Once again, awesome, you say, getting lost generally sucks. Yes, but no getting lost means no stumbling upon that hidden café where the light comes down through the windows just so… where an elderly Spanish man sits in a dark corner playing a guitar… where a girl with a sad look on her face…
Shut up you damn hipster, you say, that shit almost never happens.
And I say: you’re right. But sometimes it does.
Now, you may very well be rolling your eyes at this whole line of argument for one of two reasons:
1. You are agreeing with my general premise, but are noting that it is probably the case that through eliminating bad experiences, the sum total of experience points one achieves is higher when utilizing the internet.
2. You’re saying, if you don’t like the internet then don’t f***ing use the internet.
My responses to each of these:
This first counterargument is (again) both right and wrong. It may very well be that through eliminating bad experiences, we achieve a higher sum total of “experience points.” HOWEVER, implicit in this argument seems to be the assumption that the quality of our life has to do with a sum of our experiences. While this assumption sounds intuitive, I actually don’t think it’s very accurate. I would actually say that the quality of our lives (as viewed subjectively by ourselves) has less to do with the sum of our experiences than it does with the extremes of our experience.
Let me break this down a little further:
1. In order for something to be significant in influencing our own subjective assessment of the quality of our lives, it’s necessary that we are conscious of said thing (i.e. we remember it, even if only through the aid of others).
2. It’s just a fact that we don’t remember most of the minutiae of our lives.
3. What we do remember are the amazingly good and the catastrophically bad. Ask yourself this question: how have your last two years been? Chances are, what comes to mind are a few major things: you fell in love, you fell ill, your cat died, you finally found a job you loved. You don’t place these major things against the sum of all the minor ones. The minor things don’t even enter the equation.
All this is to say that the internet has vastly helped us do a thing (increase our sum total “experience points”) that may ultimately not matter that much.
Then don’t use the internet, Cam (which if you’ve forgotten is the second counterargument of my imaginary Devil’s Advocate).
To this, I simply say that 1) it probably would be a good, fun experiment to, every once in a while, untether ourselves from the informational teat of the internet, but 2) it’s not the same as if there were no internet.
We can close our eyes as we walk down the street, but this is not the same as being blind. Functionally they are similar (we can’t see), but the knowledge that we could see if we so chose, makes the experience fundamentally different. We can try to act like the internet never happened, but in the back of our minds we’ll know it exists and we’ll be reduced to a novelty, a Civil War re-enactor still trying to pretend it was the good ol’ days. No, the days of surprise and of getting lost are pretty much gone.
Now get off of my lawn.
By the way, I’m Cam Lay. I’m a writer (mostly of fiction, learn more at www.camrhyslay.com) and have helped grow a few startups over the years, most recently, Skillshare, where I was the VP of Marketing.