The Universal Notebook: Too much information

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Last night my lovely wife Carolyn called her sister Janice in Tokyo. As I wandered out into the kitchen to get a snack during the Celtics game, there was Janice, having just gotten out of bed because it was already tomorrow in Japan, jabbering away on daughter Tess’ laptop. I caught a glimpse of myself in the caller window and said a quick hello as I walked by. Janice held her iPhone out the window so we could see the view of Tokyo from her high-rise apartment. Amazing.

I try not to be too much a rube about technology, but I am. I’ll be damned if I understand how Skype works, let alone how it can be free. I mean how can Skype be free if Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for it? Seeing that it is, however, why would anyone place an expensive international phone call ever again? How can phone companies survive? Will the telephone soon go the way of the post office, which itself is going the way of the telegraph, which went to way of the pony express, which went the way of smoke signals.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t Skype myself. And I don’t have one of those phones with Internet access, e-mail, GPS, Wi-Fi, HD, 3D, 4G, PDF, PDQ, Hulu, Roku and built-in Pez dispenser. But I live with and among people who do. A sonic vocabulary of beeps, boops, dings, dongs, chirrups and buzzes signaling the arrival and departure of e-mail, voice mail, text messages, meeting notices, downloads, upgrades, and dying batteries punctuates my days and nights.

When my own little flip phone goes off in my pocket, trying very hard to sound like a traditional ring-ring while it alters my DNA, I am always surprised. Who would be calling me? I’d turn it off, or better still, put it on vibrate, but I don’t know how. Last Sunday it went off in church. (“Sorry. Sorry.”) It was a text from daughter Nora, who was visiting her in-laws in San Antonio, wanting to know if Auntie Janice was OK after the earthquake in eastern Japan.

Earthquake in eastern Japan? How would I know? Of course, if I’d had Carolyn’s turbo-charged iPhone I could have gone online and checked CNN or the Weather Channel. Come to think of it, the headline news service on her phone would probably have alerted Carolyn automatically.

I have a graduate degree in information science, but it’s from the 1970s, pre-PCs. I worked at Portland Public Library back when research meant books, magazines, newspapers, government documents, and the indexes thereof. Microfilm was about as high-tech as we got. Well into the 1980s, every story I wrote for a magazine or newspaper began and ended with a visit to the library. These days, all my writing begins and ends online.

What drives me nuts about information storage and retrieval these days is that it’s so undifferentiated. Doing a Google search just gets you a big bucket of electronic dirt. You have to sift through the rubble for the gold. You’d think if there’s a free international calling system there’d be a free online index service by now.

Too much information. Too little knowledge.

Instant access to all the info in the world has created expectations that are unreasonable and unhealthy. We seem to chase after the latest technology whatever it may be, without considering what its social, economic, ethical, or spiritual consequences might be. E-mail kills post offices. Websites kill newspapers and magazines. Amazon kills Borders. Kindle kills books. File sharing kills music sales. Bluetooth kills brain cells. Texting kills teenagers.

Geez, Eddie, you’re a 21st century liberal, a self-proclaimed progressive; you’re supposed to believe in human progress. Well, I guess I’m just not sure if millions of plugged-in people living in electronic cocoons is progress, even if they are in constant contact. Something tells me we were better off, more human perhaps, when the only way to communicate was face to face.

Oh, can you hold for a second? I’ve got a call on the other line …

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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