Numbness in the information age

Gavin Victor, Columnist

The principle is simple: repetitive stimulus leads to the human being needing a greater amount of stimulus for the same effect. This phenomenon occurs in many forms, but I think that it is critical to look at the effects of exposure to a constant flood of “information” — a term that has become so nebulous that I feel it needs to be in quotes. By “information” I simply mean ideas that originate outside of one’s own head and find their way into one’s head. 

Industry is now centered, not on physical things, but on ideas — knowledge, data and the like; this is the heart of the term “information age.” Websites and social media platforms sell the very information that we give them and deduce information from our time spent on them. The stock market runs on information. Recent Democratic presidential nominee candidate, Andrew Yang, got significant mileage out of the phrase, “Data is the new oil.” 

While we might not say it, what we choose to invest in (in this case quite literally) signifies what we believe to be substantial. I don’t contest that information should be considered substantial — in fact, I worry that the “information age” and how we actually act in our day-to-day lives are at odds with each other. I worry that our valuation of information is leading to its degradation through the phenomenon of numbing.

We engineer technology that puts this thing that we consider to be supremely real — “information” — in our pockets and in the palms of our hands, and we spend hours and hours consuming it. As we do this, we observe the very tragedy I mentioned prior: humans cannot be constantly exposed to the same sort of thing without developing a numbness to it. 

I feel that this is exactly why we are observing the foundations of what we call “truth” to be crumbling. It is only in a world where information is reaching meaninglessness where the president of the United States can disagree with the World Health Organization (WHO) about COVID-19, call the push for his impeachment a “coup” and make unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. We think news headlines are important — so important that many of us read hundreds a day. But read enough headlines, and they will all begin to blend together. If you say a word aloud enough times, the word will lose its meaning. This is the case with “information.”

This situation appears to be an absolute double bind. Belief in information has, in a way, resulted in its own demise. I see redemption perhaps in the experience of what it feels like to notice you are numb. Realizing you are numb is actually a very invigorating and tactile experience. When we get out of our seat at the movie theater to notice that a leg is numb, we notice that it is actually an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. A leg falling asleep only feels like nothing as long as we fail to pay attention to it. 

Numbness to information acts in the same way. Let us read our next headlines, social media posts, emails, texts and the like with the attention they deserve. If we cannot do this, we are perhaps too numb even to recognize our own numbness.