Generation Data drowns in sea of search

User and phone are merged graphic
Graphic by Carly Karas | The Oswegonian

For eight long years, Noki and I were inseparable. We went everywhere together. We went to school together; we worked together. I brought him home every night. I cherished Noki—even cradled him close to my head as I whispered into him the sweet nothings of my teenage years. Don’t get the wrong idea; it wasn’t all rainbows and puppy love. Sometimes, when I was nervous, or Noki frustrated me, I’d drop him and he’d split into no less than three pieces.

Here is where I ought to mention that Noki was what I named my phone, a Nokia 1100 (go ahead those of you with smart phones, Google it—then marvel at how primitive I lived.) Until last week that is, when I became one of those obnoxious, hipster, constantly Google-ing smart phone users. I traded Noki for an LG Optima.

To be fair, it was clearly time. I watched for years as my friends reveled in “upgrades” and their dropped-in-the-toilet phones were replaced with ever more connected devices. But, I think the first slap-in-the-face, unmistakable sign came last semester: In a class with a professor who emigrated from India, I put Noki on the table. The professor looked stunned, like he had seen an old friend he thought was long dead. He told me that was the phone he used as a young reporter on the subcontinent—one of the first ones released in India. About a decade ago.

The first few days with my Optima have been an education. Since I started service, I’ve surfed for answers to questions I would have forgotten otherwise; I’ve stayed connected to important e-mails that requested rapid responses. And in between I played Angry Birds. Lots of Angry Birds.

This is what the week had taught me: while our parents invented the Internet and wireless connectivity, our generation will perfect it. We are, like it or not, the information generation—complete with an information economy to match. Upside: awesome gadgets and libraries of knowledge at within a minute’s reach. Downside: the cold, cruel alienation of it all (okay, maybe its not that bad, or as Marxist as I’m making it sound).

But there are three problems here. First, information is maddeningly intangible. It exists behind a virtual curtain visible in every LCD screen. Will we ever think of electronic transactions and entities as entirely ‘real’? We think of reality as things we can touch and feel and buy with dollars over a counter. Sure, an angry bird is real in the sense that it results from a dynamic interaction of code that creates a representation of a fat little buzzard being lobbed from a stone age weapon toward an improbable stack of wood and glass. But doesn’t it seem hollow to minimize our virtual relationships to the crackling of digital digits devoid of flesh and feel? Yet, including the virtual reality into actual reality would do violence to the real as we know it; this is our quagmire. What matters more is how we rebuild the kingdom of the real once it annexes an infinite, recombinant abyss of ones and zeros.

We can keep this query at bay when the virtual world remains at the desktop—to visited, contained even, to set times, then left alone for the tactile comforts of brick and mortar. It’s more urgent when we carry the abyss around in our pockets and check in with it between appointments.

Second, information—because it cannot take a robust form—exists in conduits currently very fragile. I used to be able to accidentally shove Noki off the edge of my bed, or absentmindedly lose my grasp in a parking lot. Noki would split in three (battery, unit and screen) and I would casually snap him back together to dial another day. I dare not do this with the new phone—as a broken LCD screen is as useful as a lightbox.

Once a day it complains of an exhausted battery. And if a tower ever went down, then I could forget about impressing my friends by quoting the up-to-the-minute temperature in Dakar. Viruses, failed updates and overheating all threaten to ‘brick’ the device and thereby revoke my virtual green card.

Another thing: information is exhaustingly fickle. It changes; then it changes again—all at 4G speeds. The price of stocks moves up and down at eye-blink speeds—faster than most of us can handle and assimilate the change. The front-page story is useless fish-wrap within hours of its publication. The latest fad is in today, gone tomorrow—before we’ve fully delved into its charms and foibles.

A recent study sheds light on how yielding the persistence of memory really is. Researchers at Columbia University’s school of psychology found that study participants remembered fewer details when they were told that they would be able to search for the information later. Participants without the option to search paid more attention and memorized more facts. It turns out brains are better at remembering where to find a factoid than the content of that same fact.

That is certainly taxing the hardware of human brain, updating at the speed of natural selection. Our agrarian ancestors dealt with precious little change, and what did occur was given over to bouts of reflection and mediation. Taking the time to do this now requires that we ignore the vast number of notification-worthy goings-on that happen while we savor the singularity of a thought. Sunday, in the midst of a deep contemplation of sugar tariffs, I missed three e-mails and a text—all urgent, but admittedly unimportant. Back then, there was lots of time to ponder when the biggest news of the day was that the cows eventually did come home—again. Now, the supervisory attention span must play efficient traffic cop if the streams of cognition are to be kept from collision, one river always subsuming the other before our intact self drowns in overstimulation.

And while we are on the topic of memory, I should mention that there is someone I’m in the process of forgetting: Noki. Sadly, he sits cold and untouched in my drawer while I cavort around the Internet with my new phone. I promise myself I’ll push his buttons tomorrow—fire off one more sext for old time’s sake. But I know I really won’t go back. In truth, I can’t. Not since I’ve become a convert, seduced by the speed and sex of data. Our tryst is over. I’ve moved on, rendering Noki as useless as old information.