Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thinking is soooooo last century . . .

Descartes is not just literally dead in the 21st Century, he's philosophically dead, as well. His "I think, therefore I am" just doesn't cut it anymore. No one expects to get their sense of self from their inner life anymore, do they?  I mean, when was the last time you saw a person sitting around unplugged, who looked aware that they were a living, breathing, sentient human being? In my experience, if people are not plugged in, they're either jittery or asleep.

I recently had an opportunity to observe how outrĂ© thinking has become among a cultural cross-section of Americans. Day-before-yesterday, I took the Metro into Washington. As it wasn't rush hour, I wasn't smushed up against my fellow passengers and could actually study them. I did not see one person just sitting there exploring the contents of her/his own head. I did see one guy my age reading a newspaper, another studying a notebook. Everyone else was, like, totally plugged in; reality encased in a tiny screen and managed by speeding thumbs.

So here's my suggestion of a 21st Century update to Descartes famous statement: There's obviously too much information coming at me to think; ergo, I react, therefore I am.

I took the Metro into Washington to have lunch with an editor at The Washington Post, for whom I've been doing some work. As people who work in journalism are wont to do, we talked quite a bit about what the heck we're supposed to be producing these days in the way of content.

One thing we're not supposed to be doing, we decided, is offering long, thought-provoking pieces that slow down readers' minds with anything approaching complexity. People today, we decided, want to get information, react to it, possibly respond to it, and then get another hit of information. Processing information is about speed rather than, well, actually processing it, integrating it, understanding how this one bit might fit in with another.

I quietly had an epiphany, sitting there munching away on my veggie burger: Information is, in practice, the 21st Century's buzz of choice.

This editor and I went from discussing this to discussing politics;  trying to figure out why people buy the obvious lies, half-truths, and over-simplifications being flogged by today's politicians. Could it be, we asked ourselves, because the truth usually takes more time to embrace? Along with some actual study and thought?  And most worrisomely of all, while we're engaged in some outdated, time-consuming struggle to understand some complexity, might not we lose our information buzz?

I'm here to tell you that, once you're used to a buzz, losing it is not fun!

For better or for worse, I have definitively established just over the last couple of days that I, myself, have gone from thinker to reactor.

My e-mail, you see, hasn't been working properly. I can send stuff out, but no one can get back to me. It's been horrible.  My brain hasn't known what to do with itself.

I did try hard to think about something yesterday, but, cut off from any reaction to what I'd come up with, I didn't know how to assess whether what I was thinking was worth, well, the time it took to think it. Am I allowed to react to myself?

You do understand what I'm talking about?

Don't you?


  1. I suggest putting a bird feeder outside your window, and watch what happens

  2. I have one, anonymous! And it is indeed very centering -- in a 20th century sense!

  3. I think this dearth of thinking is most troublesome in the areas of politics and journalism. The gut reaction and oversimplification parodied by Stephen Colbert has become reality in people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. And the sad part is, they're popular. After all, what gets more attention, "Drill, baby, drill" or "drilling would be environmentally damaging, would take years to even begin, and do little to lower gas prices." The gut reaction wins because you don't have to think about it. You don't have to do research, you don't have to question any existing notions. And from a media standpoint, a short punchy slogan always wins.

    Journalism fails in that they allow this to happen without much, well, journalism. It's a combination of the disposable nature of the 24 hour news network and the "we present both sides, you decide" mantra. In what real reporting environment would "Ground Zero mosque" and "multi-faith community center several blocks from Ground Zero with a prayer space but also shops, a theater, and a swimming pool" not only be given equal time, but be treated as equally valid? It's not bias to call spin spin, or say "that's over-simplifying." Maybe exploration and research were cutting too much into their profit margins.