In Praise of High-Speed Overload


Recent talk of the phenomenon of preemptive irritation has made me more aware of the various sources of everyday rage, dismay and unease. But just one of these irritants is responsible for my accelerating descent into permanent anxiety. It’s the intellectual overload brought on by excessive exposure to the Internets.

Why I am so enslaved to the Internet, I do not know. Nor do I care, in the habitual manner of addicts-at least not until the consequences begin to rear their hydra heads, as they are rather doing right now. My first instinct is to say that it’s because learning stuff provides the communion with other minds that is the best defense against existential loneliness and ennui. The more you learn, the less alone you will feel. And by now the Internet must contain knowledge enough to cure all six or seven billion of us of that loneliness.

I often fantasize about that thing in The Matrix where you can just plug your brain into a network (rather like the Internet) through a socket at the base of your skull, and then information is downloaded right into you at lightning speed. (“Can you fly that thing?” “Not yet.”) The druglike nature of that injection-straight-into-the-brain imagery is no accident; it’s apt. What an attractive, gluttonous fantasy! The subject twitches a little as knowledge floods in. As I can quite imagine one would. I almost do that at my desk sometimes, after a little too much enlightenment has caused the brains to bulge. Perhaps your eyeballs will roll back into your head in ecstasy when, at last and instantaneously, you understand quantum mechanics… I’m longing to try it. Of all the inventions in all the fantasies I’ve ever read or seen, I love this one most.

At my desk there is, sadly, no such device, so I am reduced to a very plodding rate of intoxication. And I do, I spend enormous, unjustifiable amounts of time simply gorging on information. The worst of it is that I seem to need more and more, but the equipment I am using is too slow, it’s positively lumbering. No way can my head handle the rate at which I am trying to shove stuff in; the evidence of that is conclusive. I can never remember how to spell Aung San Suu Kyi. A Canadian friend ribs me for knowing so little about the Harper government. I still haven’t read today’s newsletters from Salon,, or The New Yorker. The books in this house are evidently multiplying on their own. It takes me forever to read even a newspaper article in Spanish, let alone Roberto Bolaño like I’m supposed to be doing. [1] I harbor a growing fear that I’m trying to pile more and more into an already-full bowl. What crucial contents might not already have spilled out of there, and long ago?

This chick Sue Halpern, who was panicking along the same lines I am (fear of bowl-leakage) wrote in Slate last month about these memory-enhancement devices she’d tried out; she is more or less a believer, and also she claims this stuff helped her beat her husband at ping-pong. I must say I perked up a bit at that news, because my husband is a perfect fiend at ping-pong. Nevertheless, I can’t quite see shelling out 350 clams for whatever mnemonic light-show goggle thing, or really believe it could do much for my own “2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”

Sherlock Holmes had his own scheme for dealing with this problem. He said (in The Five Orange Pips) that “a man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.” Like RAM storage, I guess, versus a hard drive. I despair of ever achieving anything like that kind of order. The condition of my own storage facilities is more like something out of one of those ghastly reality TV shows about hoarders.

What I should really do here is come clean and admit the truth, which is that I am a stone liar. Who am I kidding? I love this kind of crazy. I wouldn’t trade it away for anything and I only want more. I love the time in which we are living with a startling lack of reservation, despite everything.

A friend told me that there is a “Slow Media” movement brewing out there, somewhere or other. The Internet confirms. NO. I only want food to go slow! The growing advance of knowledge, the tantalizing proximity of answers to all our questions, the new ability to share and synthesize our knowledge, almost instantly-we’re so lucky to be experiencing all this. If the price is more anxiety, then let me wind up like the Tasmanian Devil, just a blur of anxiety. Of unbelieveably knowledgeable, totally undeceived anxiety. So what if the Internet has turned each day into a panic-ridden informational hot-dog-eating contest? So what if with the incomparable gift of access to limitless knowledge comes also a little melancholy, and anxiety that waxes sometimes into an Ernest-Beckerish sense of impending doom?

Allen Ginsberg’s My Sad Self is all about this very sense of simultaneous gratitude and loss, but it was another phrase of his that I meant to quote: “Misery and happiness are one taste.” This, from an extraordinary interview in the Times. I couldn’t quite remember, though, the exact words of Ginsberg’s memorable phrase. I had to look it up.

1 For the group read of 2666, which is really fun.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and

Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.