“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think,” blues singer Tracy Nelson belts out on the radio. I’m listening to my husband’s Thursday afternoon show, “The Outskirts” on KBCS, and I’m thinking about all the knowledge that now inundates us every day of our lives, and how when it gets to be too much, we can’t think at all.
This is not a new thought, this notion of information overload. What’s interesting is the lengths to which people go in order to find some peace and quiet.
A few minutes after he played Tracy Nelson, Rus sent me a link to a New York Times opinion piece by travel writer Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer writes of author friends who pay for a software called “Freedom” which blocks their Internet connections for hours at a time so they can get some writing done. He writes of other friends who declare an Internet Sabbath on the weekend, unplugging from Friday evening until Monday morning so they can enjoy family time. He writes of hotel room rentals for upwards of two thousand dollars a night where one of the main attractions is: NO Internet, TV or other connections to the outside world.
When I read these kinds of anecdotes, my impulse is to go judgmental. Have these people not heard of hiking or camping? I want to ask. Or maybe just a walk in the park, without their smart phone?
But part of me understands all too well what they’re up against. The problem is expectations. Or, more accurately, perceived expectations. Which can then so easily be used as excuses.
I don’t have a smart phone, but I will probably get one in 2012. Rus and I make short films for a living, and our clients now expect—or at least I believe they do—to be able to reach us via email, even if we’re out on a shoot for another client. This did not used to be true. “Traveling” or “filming” used to be legitimate reasons for being out of email range, along with “vacations” and “holidays.” No more.
And email is now only the tip of the iceberg. We should be using GPS, not printing map pages. An i-cal, not an ancient Daytimer. Then there’s Twitter and Facebook, the twin frenemies of procrastinators everywhere, including me.
I watch younger colleagues, or the teens I tutor, or my own young-adult children, deal with all these distractions so calmly and matter-of-factly I think maybe they’ve just grown up knowing how to concentrate on their work while also monitoring Twitter feeds and Facebook updates and blizzards of texts. But I don’t think that’s true. I think they need unplugged time more than we know. More than they know.
When faced with a task that is hard—writing an essay for a tough class or finishing an assignment for a demanding boss—it’s so, so easy to divert your attention to that little screen. To tap into all that knowledge that’s right there, literally in your pocket, luring you away from actually thinking.
Looking stuff up is ridiculously easy. Thinking is harder than ever. And it’s a learned skill. A muscle that needs to be exercised.
Here’s my New Year’s resolution: to practice turning off the faucet of knowledge when what I really need to do is think.