Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Data and Depth

Our times are known for information overload—a way of saying that we have abandoned good practices by which we control the flow of a life-giving substance. Rivers come to mind. They are the arteries of civilization. When they flood, trouble. Great tsunamis of information simply overwhelm. I was reminded of this twice yesterday. In the morning I read a post on Siris titled “Beginning to See”; it is a brief quote from Cardinal Newman which shows the problem of sensory overload. In the evening I clicked across the 2009 version of The Electric Company, a kind of travesty of educational television. I stayed around and watched it. The program’s evident premise is that sensory overload is beneficial.

Water channeled—life. Water run amuck—destruction.

When I was in the military, stationed in Baumholder, Germany, a training station that housed 10,000 American and perhaps 300 French soldiers, I had access to a tiny library, the only one on the post. It would greatly surprise me if that place had as many as 10,000 volumes. By happenstance the contents of that little library were exceptional. It had a stellar collection of intellectual and artistic works. This sort of thing happens. Original, adventurous, and unusual men and women are drawn into desolate barbaric places. Baumholder was such a place. And there, on their own, such people can shine. The small size of this facility and its depth of content coincided to create a little gem. Just a handful of us benefitted from its compact riches. The library had depth.

Depth is an achievement, the achievement of comprehensive grasp, the development of an enlightened intuition. It requires an effort to see the big picture and the small, the forest and the trees, the climate and the most minute biota, endeavoring the whole while to link them all in detail and in grand patterns that fall in complexly-integrated cascades from a meaningful summit. There is no Depth for Dummies; no sound-byte can capture it. Newman expended a good deal of effort on this subject and even produced a word for depth-perception, if you like, the illative sense. The word derives from deduction or inference in Latin, but I’ve always understood it as something that transcends reasoning. I’ve rendered it as intuition-plus. The word failed to get traction in philosophy precisely because, it seems to me, it does not lend itself to manipulation in verbal play. It transcends that level. Time plays a significant role in the achievement of depth because deep thought requires time and much experience. To quote another John with a similar name, John von Neumann supposedly said, “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.”

Those who escaped The Electric Company, as I did—I was 35 when it first aired—at least had a leg up on the unfortunate youths of today, conditioned, as they are, unless draconian parents stand in the way, to stand in great bafflement before—

The multitude of things, which present themselves to the sight under a multiplicity of shapes and hues, pour in upon [them] from the external world all at once, and are at first nothing else but lines and colours, without mutual connection, dependence, or contrast, without order or principle, without drift or meaning. [John Henry Newman]

1 comment:

  1. I love the analogy of the information age as being a flood and inundating rather than illuminating. Very nice.

    This subject of sorting through the flood of information, taking the time to contemplate, and resisting the distractions around us, is most interesting. It is the subject matter that I thought would be treated in Maggie Jackson's book Distracted. Instead, her book was an good example of the level of thought brought to a subject in a world of distraction. Funny.

    My own attempts to practice focusing my attention consciously continue...