No Time to Think

By Duane Shank 08-18-2011

The avalanche of information available via the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Used judiciously, it is an invaluable tool for research -- making what used to take hours in a library now just a few clicks away. Any piece of information, no matter how obscure, is at our fingertips.

The proliferation of blogs and listservs means an amount of information that is simply impossible to keep up with. We have news summaries several times a day and instant breaking news headlines as they happen. And then there is the rise of new social media. Facebook has enabled us to connect with friends and family, so we know immediately the latest cute thing their toddler did, what they're cooking for dinner, and the most recent book they read. On Twitter, we share thoughts and activities in 140-word tweets.

All of this means we know more than ever, but never have time to think about it. Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, lamented in a piece in The New York Times Sunday Review:

In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful -- into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

But converting information into ideas takes time to think. It requires reflecting on information, thinking about how it connects to something else, and deducing a conclusion, a new idea. Gabler writes that we live in a "post-idea" world, in which new, thought-provoking ideas are not valued. That means we just continue accumulating more information, much of it trivial, without the earth-changing ideas that have come in the past.

Yet we're afraid that if we stop to think, we'll miss the next hour of constantly flowing information. We're afraid we might miss something important that all of our friends will know and we won't. Or we might miss a crucial piece of new information we need for our jobs. So we jump back into the stream, furiously swimming to stay ahead of the torrent, but rarely succeeding and just being carried away in the flow.

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor at Sojourners.

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