What good is information?

The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that

by 1700 1,700 words
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Photo by Steve Prezant/Gallery Stock

Photo by Steve Prezant/Gallery Stock

Dougald Hine is a British writer. He founded the School of Everything, Spacemakers, & the Institute for Collapsonomics. e wrote Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009) with Paul Kingsnorth.

On my morning bus into town, every teenager and every grown-up sits there staring into their little infinity machine: a pocket-sized window onto more words than any of us could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, more pictures of people getting naked than we could ever get off to. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable, this cornucopia of information. Those of us who were already more or less adults when it arrived wonder at how different it must be to be young now. ‘How can any kid be bored when they have Google?’ I remember hearing someone ask.

The question came back to me recently when I read about a 23-year-old British woman sent to prison for sending rape threats to a feminist campaigner over Twitter. Her explanation for her actions was that she was ‘off her face’ and ‘bored’. It was an ugly case, but not an isolated one. Internet trolling has started to receive scholarly attention – in such places as the Journal of Politeness Research and its counterpart, the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict – and ‘boredom’ is a frequently cited motive for such behaviour.

It is not only among the antisocial creatures who lurk under the bridges of the internet that boredom persists. We might no longer have the excuse of a lack of stimulation, but the vocabulary of tedium is not passing into history: the experience remains familiar to most of us. This leads to a question that goes deep into internet culture and the assumptions with which our infinity machines are packaged: exactly what is it that we are looking for?

‘Information wants to be free’ declared Stewart Brand, 30 years ago now. Cut loose from its original context, this phrase became one of the defining slogans of internet politics. With idealism and dedication, the partisans of the network seek to liberate information from governments and corporations, who of course have their own ideas about the opportunities its collection and control might afford. Yet the anthropomorphism of Brand’s rallying cry points to a stronger conviction that runs through much of this politics: that information is itself a liberating force.

This conviction gets its charge, I suspect, from the role that these technologies played as a refuge for the Californian counterculture of the 1960s. Brand himself embodies the line that connects the two: showing up to meet Ken Kesey out of jail in the opening of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) – ‘a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead… an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it’ – then creating the Whole Earth Catalog, the bible of the back-to-the-land movement, or, as Steve Jobs would later call it, ‘Google in paperback form’.

Before there was a web for search engines to index, Brand had co-founded the WELL (the ‘Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link’), a bulletin board launched from the Whole Earth offices in 1985. Its members pushed through the limitations of the available technology to discover something resembling a virtual community. At the core of this group were veterans of the Farm, one of the few hippie communes to outlast the early years of idealism and chaos; in the WELL, these and other paisley-shirted pioneers shared their experiences with the people who would go on to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990 and Wired magazine in 1993.

This line from counterculture to cyberculture is not the only one we can draw through the prehistory of our networked age, nor is it necessarily the most important. But it carried a disproportionate weight in the formation of the culture and politics of the web. When the internet moved out of university basements and into public consciousness in the 1990s, it was people such as Brand, Kevin Kelly (founding editor of Wired) and John Perry Barlow (founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) who were able to combine the experience of years spent in spaces such as the WELL with the ability to tell strong, simple stories about what this was and why it mattered.

information took the place of LSD, the magic substance whose consumption could transform the world

The journalist John Markoff, himself an early contributor to the WELL, gave a broader history of how the counterculture shaped personal computing in his book What the Dormouse Said (2005). As any Jefferson Airplane fan can tell you, what the Dormouse said was: ‘Feed your head! Feed your head!’ The internet needed a story that would make sense to those who would never be interested in the TCP/IP protocol, and the counterculture survivors gave it one – the great escapist myth of their era: turn on, tune in, drop out. In this new version of the fable, information took the place of LSD, the magic substance whose consumption could transform the world.

The trouble is that information doesn’t nourish us. Worse, in the end, it turns out to be boring.

A writer friend was asked to join a pub quiz team in the village where he has lived for more than half a century. ‘You know lots of things, Alan,’ said the neighbour who invited him. The neighbour had a point: Alan is the most alarmingly knowledgeable person I know. Still, he declined politely, and was bemused for days. There can be a certain point-scoring pleasure in demonstrating the stockpile of facts one has accumulated, but it is in every other sense a pointless kind of knowledge.

This is more than just intellectual snobbery. Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning. And if there is an antidote to boredom, it is not information but meaning.

If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by

There is a connection, though, between the two. Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.

It is only fair to note that the internet is not altogether to blame for this, and that the rise of boredom itself goes back to an earlier technological revolution. The word was invented around the same time as the spinning jenny. As the philosophers Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani put it in their essay ‘The Delicate Monster’ (2009):
Boredom is not an inherent quality of the human condition, but rather it has a history, which began around the 18th century and embraced the whole Western world, and which presents an evolution from the 18th to the 21st century.

For all its boons, the industrial era itself brought about an endemic boredom peculiar to the division of labour, the distancing of production from consumption, and the rationalisation of working activity to maximise output.

My point is not that we should return to some romanticised preindustrial past: I mean only to draw attention to contradictions that still shape our post-industrial present. The physical violence of the 19th-century factory might be gone, at least in the countries where industrialisation began, but the alienation inherent in these ways of organising work remains.

When the internet arrived, it seemed to promise a liberation from the boredom of industrial society, a psychedelic jet-spray of information into every otherwise tedious corner of our lives. In fact, at its best, it is something else: a remarkable helper in the search for meaningful connections. But if the deep roots of boredom are in a lack of meaning, rather than a shortage of stimuli, and if there is a subtle, multilayered process by which information can give rise to meaning, then the constant flow of information to which we are becoming habituated cannot deliver on such a promise. At best, it allows us to distract ourselves with the potentially endless deferral of clicking from one link to another. Yet sooner or later we wash up downstream in some far corner of the web, wondering where the time went. The experience of being carried on these currents is quite different to the patient, unpredictable process that leads towards meaning.

The latter requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge. Find the corners of our lives in which we can unplug, the days on which it is possible to refuse the urgency of the inbox, the activities that will not be rushed. Switch off the infinity machine, not forever, nor because there is anything bad about it, but out of recognition of our own finitude: there is only so much information any of us can bear, and we cannot go fishing in the stream if we are drowning in it. As any survivor of the 1960s counterculture could tell us, it is best to treat magic substances with respect – and to be careful about the dosage.

Comments

  • Frank

    Very interesting. Some questions: What is boredom? Why do we get bored? I don't know but here s a theory: When there is nothing to do that gives any meaning we feel that the whole life is without purpose. Like riding a bus or subway.
    I remember the days before the internet. We also got bored. So we went and met someone. We didn't do anything interesting but we felt better. Maybe that's why Facebook is so successful. Anything is better than nothing. Anything es better than just sitting in a bus and doing nothing.

    • http://worldbuilders.co/ Matt Williams

      Meaning comes from within. If you have a 'meaningful' lens through which you see the world, a bus ride with 'nothing' happening can provoke curiosity and wonder as opposed to boredom.

      • G

        Yes, yes a thousand times, yes.

        Riding the bus or waiting in a queue can become an opportunity for imagination, curiosity, or reflection. Many are the insights of brilliant people and average people alike, that have come in idle moments.

        One of the most pernicious effects of what the author insightfully calls 'infinity machines,' is that they come to occupy peoples' every moment with stimulation and advertising and 'entertainment,' stealing away opportunities for curiosity and wonder, imagination, reflection, and so on, and thereby stealing the foundation of the sense of meaning.

        Conversely, simply turning off the mobile device and putting it away whilst on a bus ride or otherwise idle, can quickly reveal a vast reservoir of potential for engagement, both external and internal.

        • Brian Jensen

          I'm bored reading this.

    • David

      "Heidegger believes that boredom is evidence to ourselves of our existence through our direct experience of time. This is an almost physical experience. Without distractions such as radios, newspapers or other people, we are unarmed in such experience. Time pushes down on us, applying more and more pressure. We are uncomfortable with this as most of us are not capable of dealing with raw time. We suddenly become aware of many things, and most frighteningly of all, we become aware of ourselves. With nothing to distract us from time we see our own existence stretched out before us. Suddenly we begin to feel very insignificant. We feel ignored by the world as it passes us by, seemingly uninterested in providing us with any meaning." excerpt from 'Bored With Time?' by Cathal Horan

      Highly recommendable short essay available on PhilosphyNow.org

      • G

        Having a stretch of idle time, particularly if one has any sense of how long it will be, is a fertile opportunity for the use of one's imagination.

        With a decent imagination, there is not much room left for boredom.

        You can train yourself to do this little mental switch by just learning to recognise when you have idle time on your hands. Then, 'click!', off you go to some world of your own creation, whether contemplating something factual or purely of fantasy. You can keep a collection of points-of-entry, subject matters and scenarios and fictional threads and the like, and get back to any of them in much the same way as with a bookmark in a book.

        All it takes is to learn to remember that 'the feeling of having idle time' is the cue.

        • Earthstar

          And when imagination grows tiresome and empty, there's meditation.

        • ApathyNihilism

          Not true. After a while, all those "worlds of your own creation" become boring as well. It is existence itself, in any imaginable permutation, that becomes boring, without any ultimate sense of meaning. Why exist rather than not exist?

    • G

      Boredom is an emotional flatline state that occurs when the neurochemistry that produces other emotional states has become temporarily exhausted. (For sociopaths and psychopaths, this is a chronic condition as they are lifelong emotional flatlines whose manipulation and harm of others, pathological lying, extreme risk-taking behaviours, hyperactive sexuality and substance abuse, and the like, are the only ways they can 'feel anything at all.') But in normal folks, boredom is temporary whilst the brain is recharging itself.

      You can of course treat boredom as a signal for taking a rest, such as going to sleep, to let your brain recharge. Or if you have any skill at observing and navigating your own mind, for instance if you practice basic meditation exercises regularly, you can learn to spot the subtle cues as to which parts of your emotional neurochemistry aren't tired-out when the more-obvious ones are exhausted: for instance, anything to which you direct attention, that provokes even the slightest bits of feeling. Then, direct your attention to whatever-that-is, and dive into it. The emotional state variables that go along with it provide a point of interest, and the rest follows.

      • Simon Very

        If boredom is an emotional flatline state, do we react against boredom as we might react against the onset of death?

        • G

          Interesting comparison, I've not heard that one before. As far as I know, the disdain for boredom and the fear of death are not related. If people associated one with the other, you would expect to see the linkage used extensively in fiction and frequently reported in medical patient anecdotes, but aside from the popular colloquialism 'bored to death,' there's not much.

          If anything, the onset of death is often associated with near-death experiences (NDEs), which are anything but boring.

          At present the majority of the culture is polarised between those who believe in Abrahamic concepts of afterlife entwined with moral judgement and punishment for sin, and those who believe in the material monist theory of mind whereby the death of the brain is the complete cessation of one's existence. Each of those views has its own route toward fear. Contrast to the view of death held by those who have had NDEs or know someone who has: an almost complete absence of the fear of death.

          • Scott W

            I think that he meant the actual physical onset of death, not the emotional lead-up. If boredom is an emotional flatline, then as our brain shuts down while we are dying, will there be a moment when our emotions cease to function, causing the same sensation as boredom?

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com/ Sue

    This was lovely. Thank you.

  • http://irrationalrealm.com/ Gregor Schmidinger

    Great read. I especially like the relation between boredom and meaning.

    • G

      And excessive consumption.

      Former US President Jimmy Carter made a famous speech in which he criticised hyperactive materialism, saying,

      'In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.'

      http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3402

      Carter has come in for an undue and unfair share of criticism, but he was one of the most intelligent (US Navy nuclear engineer) and most moral (human rights) Presidents in US history. And those words of his were insightful and wise in a way that transcends the times in which he spoke.

      Frenetic consumerism produces a hyperstimulation of the senses that leaves dull boredom in its wake the moment the buzz of newness wears off. Between those extremes, the quietude and reflection upon which meaning depends, have no time to flourish.

      One of the best ways to banish boredom is to seek out quietude and reflection, and thereby provide the fertile ground for meaning to grow.

      • makayli verran

        my Aunty Sienna recently got a stunning red Nissan Maxima by
        working part time online... find out here now B­u­z­z­3­4­.­ℂ­o­m

        • Not A Troll

          The irony burns...

      • http://reasonandmeaning.com David Hume

        Your comments on Carter are appropriate. And to think he lose to Reagan. Consumerism doesn't fulfill our need for meaning. An excellent article and website that discusses these issues is

        http://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/03/06/when-children-ask-about-the-meaning-of-life/

  • Billy Jack

    Terrific.

  • Zoe Young

    finding yourself in a strange city without bus timetable nor even a desire to look one up, meaning can be found through the echoes of journeys past, in the smiling face of a fellow passenger, under the paving stones, rolling in the surf at the beach.. it is in this two dimensional world of information without causation, connection without embodiment that ennui can set in so easily. I find.
    more joy in the sunshine, on a hill.

  • Selene

    Thoroughly though-provoking, thank you for writing this article.

  • Alan

    "Information doesn’t nourish us. Worse, in the end, it turns out to be boring." You talk about information as if it's an objectively negative force. It's our relationship with information that's potentially toxic. If people are bored, they need to better manage and integrate the massive influx of data. Maybe information literacy courses are in order.

    • andrekibbe

      I read the author as implying that excessive information is an "objectively negative force", just as overeating is negative, even with healthy foods.

  • Murray Reiss

    Wait -- there's really such a thing as the Journal of Politeness Research? What a world! Who could be bored?

  • George Simons

    Wow. Exceptionally written article, and very . . . meaningful. Thank you. In response to the last few paragraphs, I feel that people are finding the "off switch" in meditation and more traditional yoga. This could explain their rising trend.

  • Liz Scott

    The Internet is not a cure for the human desire for a meaningful life. Some look for meaning in money, in accomplishments, in fame, and in many other places, but it is a difficult search. When life has meaning, we do not have to be bored, because all of our lifetime we have things to do, to think, things to help with, things to understand.

  • drokhole

    Boredom can be very interesting if you take time to look into and examine the feeling.

  • Juicygoosemonger

    Boredom is probably just a lack of expected socializing. Read Harry
    Potter or the Bible and you won't be bored because everyone you know reads it. Read
    about electronic circuits and you will find that the intense meaning
    there may contrast with the total lack of interest by those around you, but subconsciously the 'meaning' you wanted was to please others. So now you have to invent a new kind of subwoofer. Or have some hobbies with socializing and some with none, and learn to overcome your innate weirdness that nonetheless inevitably leads to outrageous philosophizing about emotions.

    • ApathyNihilism

      "Boredom is probably just a lack of expected socializing.".

      Not true. What I find boring or interesting has no correlation with what others find boring or interesting. (I find both Harry Potter and the Bible boring, by the way, and electronic circuits only moderately less boring).

  • tetriminos

    indeed

  • Antonio Bertossi

    Interesting read, though maybe not particularly original to the ones familiar with interpretative semiotic. This discipline has outlined the fundamentals of the 'information - meaning' issue already in the late 60s. Then, in mid 70s U. Eco wrote A Theory of Semiotics (pub. 1979), a rigid yet very comprehensive general theory in which the author specifies, in this regards, that 'information represents the lower threshold for semiotics'; something that means nothing if someone - human being - does not actualise it. Information, for semiotics, translates into signal. Eco's focus on this issue is due to the rise of Information Theory (Shannon, 1948), which helped defining communication as a process a great deal (sender-channel-noise-receiver), but did not put much focus on meanings, which should be seen, as suggested by semiotics, as the ultimate goal of communication. But again, there's no meanings if someone does not actualise them.
    Interestingly, meaning translates into semiotics as message. In some respect, it's possible to say that a lot of contemporary communication acts - those processes that we activate by clicking here and there, by sending stickers and pokes, 'liking' randomness around,... - don't represent communication at all (communication as that happy condition called negotiation of meaning), but rather they represent a sort of idea of communicability, the potential that some meanings could be negotiated, an environment where the impression of meanings originates.
    However, another great aspect of semiotics (and especially interpretative s.) is the responsibility left to human being - us - in the act of actualisation of meanings. Meanings are the cooperative result of communication processes, and therefore the problem of 'too much information' bounces back, in some respect, as 'the problem of the lack of willingness to actualise information'. I think this is a very intricate phenomena and if the quantity of information is definitely an impediment for the actualisation (we simply can't actualise everything), there are several other elements into the equation that render this issue as more complicated that it might appear. Just to mention one rather important fact, we shouldn't forget that the media environments for connectivity which characterise our contemporaneity welcome aesthetic communication a great deal. This might sound bizarre, especially if the idea of aesthetics is misinterpreted with naive concepts such as 'beauty' or 'art'. The aesthetic nature of media and mass media communication had been outlined in the 60s (by Eco again) and lately this communication function has just piqued. Very briefly, the aesthetic function traceable in communication acts is a condition of what is said that comes with ambiguity and self-focus. As an obvious result (that we all probably know), aesthetic is that condition for which we consider more how things are said, rather then what is said. Now, what I'm trying to say here (chopped by brutal simplification), is that the aesthetic layer that characterises the 'breaking news!' business, YouTube, social network's 'viral' videos, and all that sort of things is something that, so to speak, doesn't help actualising what is negotiated in the network - that is the actual meaning of a communication process - due to the fact that how these things are 'negotiated' already produces some effects; surprise, amusement, fear, and so forth. This is an emotional layer, which I reckon is really important, but that needs comprehension. I suggest a very simple exercise. Next time you get surprised by something you read or watch in the network, try to understand what it's been said. It's really intriguing to realise the extent of repetition and banality of a lot of 'things' injected into the networks. For example, we all know the massive phenomena of cat videos. A business of billions of clicks, 'likes' and 'shares'. Countless hours of recordings that, more or less, represent the same subject - cats and their owners - doing the same things - acting weirdly, looking funnily, jumping here and there. Isn't this a monstrous pile of information that basically might be actualised as the same meaning? Maybe there isn't too much information out there, but just leading topics and relative, endless and camouflaged versions of them.

    • Michael Liquori

      I would say that there is really an enormous lot of information out there (see Wikipedia, not to mention many statistical databases that are now freely available and can lead to story-telling conclusions), but of course, the vast majority of that information is tedious and "boring" compared to cat videos which easily hit our pleasure centers and immediately appear as something novel or compelling.

      But - at least since the rise of the consumer/industrial/capitalist society - the majority of people have always wasted their free time away on banal "information": sports, gossip, melodramas, video games. I'm not sure it's a bad evolution to cat videos.

      At least, it seems to unify people whereas many older forms ask us to take sides against each other, for no particular reason. Although, in choosing sides there is at least some form of representing and defining the self, which in cat videos has little place except to prefer Grumpy Cat over Lil' Bub.

      One could see this as a victory for comedy over both information and meaning. Meaning is no longer felt as universal, substantial, or consequential in a fractured, godless, over-informed, scientist world, so we are left with no better choice than to laugh all the way to the grave. And indeed, comedy has seen a huge surge in popularity as other arts have fallen.

      The great difficulty is for those who would have had an easier time focusing and actualising information in past times and are now too easily distracted, as with a drug. It is all the more difficult to abstain because "everyone is doing it" and few see it as harmful yet. I don't think I can call it a tragedy quite equal to drug addiction, because it is an addiction that is not so hard to break if one decides that that is where greater happiness lies, but I appreciate this article shedding some light on the problem.

  • obadiah_edomite

    it's as easy to connect information to meaning as it is to walk from London to New York City. especially if you're a robot.

  • antoniodias

    Great article Dougald!

    A reminder of the history of the Utopian wing of the internet rising out of the counterculture. Also that boredom has a history and it is tied to industrialism and the stripping of context from our lives.

    I'd like to add that besides the "infinite" aspect of information on the web there is also the limitations of the media itself to provide more than just a facsimile of an experience. This relates to the way things were back when Moore's "Law" was still in effect and computers gained speed at an accelerating rate over a rather short period of time. A new computer always seemed to be urging us to catch up. After a fairly short time it was felt to be slow.

    This was because binary computational power was a simulacra of intelligence. It's limitations were easily exceeded by our faculties to experience what was marketed as a relationship with an intelligent entity.

    This same limitation hampers every type of content absorbed over an electronic media. It can only provide a narrow range of "bandwidth" compared to our senses. In this case not quite as potent as LSD, since LSD – I'm told – works through our sensorium directly.

    Meaning arises and is compelling when we bring all of our faculties to bear on an experience. As you say, this includes reflection that cannot be attained if we never turn the tap off for even a moment. It also requires that our experiences be full and captivating and always larger than our capacity to "know" them. Only in wonder at the mystery of what we cannot grasp do we find meaning that is not bound by boredom.

  • Nate Smars

    Of course, at the bottom of this essay: "You might also like...." "Follow us on...."

  • holy_crap_this_is_boring

    The thing that I think is missing most from the discussion on trolling is that it hardly existed in the early internet. Sure, there were a few. Some that existed on Usenet have Wikipedia articles about them. But the reason we remember their names isn't completely because the internet population was so small, it was because the behavior was largely unheard of. The internet was mostly information back then and really sparse on entertainment. It's now completely flipped to opposite.

    The downward slide, i believe... is when advertisers pushed for things to keep eyeballs on the page and added forums to stories. [Yes, I realize the hypocrisy and/or irony of me posting this.] Eventually sites cropped up that were all entertainment and no information at all. Social media was born.

    Of course there was socializing back in those days. It occurred on usenet, IRC and various cgi based forums. Most of which were archived in one way or another. internetarchive.org (webpages) groups.google.com (usenet)or bash.org (irc). Of course, there were flooders, spammers, trolls, and pranksters...there's no denying that. But nothing like it is today. It's practically encouraged or accepted to frustrate and anger people. It's no big deal...and even if it was. it's their fault for taking things so seriously, amirite?

  • Guy

    Wow Looking at these comments, i have to say I see the authors point. you guys are capital BORING. I never saw a worse case of intellectual dribble that ment nothing and has absolutely no point. And yet this dribble is repeated by way more then just 5 people in succession. Just going on and on with a tangent rant of self assured pretenses with a high vocabulary... I'm glad to see some of you made great use of a dictionary, but have you gone out to play with you're kids? I don't think the internet is so limited to 'cat videos' that's all that is filling peoples heads with nonsense, the intellectual also has their stupid time wasters (IE. Google)... In short stop being a hypocrite and get a life. And no im not being a troll, im just saying lets be real.