In the mid-1990s my friend Dave Allen published a zine called “The Clutter of Pop” (followed by a record of the same name). In one of them he wrote an essay about the glut of entertainment media choking our attention spans. I’ve long since lost the zine and I can barely remember Dave’s insights, but I do keep thinking about it in light of the ever increasing glut since its publication.
It is often said that we only use ten percent of our brains. While that’s not exactly true, we often do only use about ten percent of its capacity at any given time. Another way to look at it is as a giant sieve. When we’re awake and alert, our brains are filtering out a vast majority of the stimuli around us. Don’t check my math, but think of it as only ten percent of the world getting in. Contrast that idea to idea that when we’re asleep and dreaming, the filters are only partially on or completely off. This makes using less of your brain — or stimulating less of it — not only an advantage, but a necessity to your sanity.
As amazing as the human brain is, it still has plenty of limitations. Some of its limitations are what have created the aforementioned glut. We externalize our knowledge and the processing thereof to free up our internal bandwidth. Hieroglyphs, language, books, keyboards, archives, databases, cassette tapes, websites, and iPods are all products of our mental offloading. We’ve emptied our heads so much that now it’s difficult to find a signal among the noise. The digital shift from bits to atoms only exacerbates the issue, problematizing the filtering process in altogether new ways.
For instance, with the impending demise of the printed page the debate regarding digital books is in full swing, following closely after that of the compact disc. Though the nature of reading the printed word and listening to music lend themselves to digitization in very different ways, there is a major overlooked similarity in the transition: The organizing principles of both are being irrevocably reconfigured.
What is a book but an organizing principle? What is an organizing principle but a filtering device? The book works for printed language just as the album does for recorded music: it filters and organizes it in a meaningful way for mental consumption. As David Weinberger pointed out, analog media like books and albums filter first, whereas digital media like websites and MP3s filter last. That is, by the time you read a book it’s been through a thorough rigorous organizing, writing, editing, proofreading, and design process. When you run a search on Google or Wikipedia, what you end up reading is filtered and organized on the fly as you request it (Wikipedia actually has an ongoing organizing process, and Facebook and Twitter are filtering digital information in still new and different ways).
None of this filtering and reorganizing means that the book as we know it is going to go away anytime soon. What all of this means is that some things that were never meant to be books will now have a place to be themselves. Let’s face it, just as some records only have one good song, some books would be better off as blogs.
Time is the one truly finite resource. If we are to optimize it, we need better filters and better organizing principles. Instead of slogging through a whole book on a topic that would’ve just as well made a decent magazine piece, we’ll read it as it develops on the author’s blog. When we want to get lost in some convoluted alternate reality, we can still read a thousand-page Thomas Pynchon novel on good ol’ paper (his newest is out today and is roughly half that long).
These changes change the way we think. They literally change our minds. With more and more choices for our filtering pleasure, I believe it’s mostly for the better.