Can abundance stare down overwhelm?
Amid the flipbook churn of links from Twitter, Facebook and email yesterday, I saw two that brought different sides of me into contrast.
One was a picture based on the tumblr The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The Dictionary is the brainchild of graphic designer and editor John Koenig. Koenig imagines new words for feelings that should have their own word but don’t, like the momentary terror when your eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark yet, or the wish that someone else’s phone buzzing had been yours (those two are mine). Buzzfeed’s Daniel Dalton did a really nice job illustrating some of Koenig’s words a few weeks ago, which may explain why the list is showing up in my feeds a lot.
Several of Koenig’s neologisms are based on the maddening limitations of the human perspective. The frustration that we can only inhabit one person’s experience: “Onism.” The longing to know how history turns out: “Ellipsism.”
The other link was to this contrarily optimistic piece by Abhimanyu Ghoshal, who argues that an insurmountable backlog of “read later” bookmarks is not necessarily a sign of digital overload, but, if you let it be, a “deep treasure trove” of self-curated material that you can mine whenever “you have time on your hands and nowhere to go.”
My saved bookmarks and Apple Reading List are regular chances to scold myself, but Ghoshal’s counterintuitive idea of bottomless digital abundance felt very freeing. What if limitless choices were comforting, instead of daunting, or paralyzing?
I wonder if popular literacy created a similar frustration hundreds of years ago. Did new readers feel their lack of mobility more keenly once written accounts made other places and pursuits realer? It’s hard to imagine a greater reminder of “what you don’t know yet” than the firehose of factoids, analysis and photos that runs out of the Internet into my devices. You can argue that we’d all be just fine without so much digital noise (and you’d have a good point), but when a feed serves up news about uncharted galaxies, or real-time images from Maidan, the hunger for more time, more data, seems natural.
Faced with these opposite emotions—the gloom of an ant’s-eye view and the contentment with an inexhaustible supply of knowledge—I had a surprising moment of acceptance.
If we allow our appetite for the unknown to pull us forward, the frustration that drives our curiosity can be just that: drive, not simply frustration. And if we can stand the idea of an unfinished reading list, maybe we’ll pay better attention to what we read, and worry less about what we lack.
Tools seduce us into thinking we can have everything, blow past our limitations. But unless they develop souls or become citizens they’re still just tools. The decision about how to climb past our limited perspectives—and at what pace—is in our hands. We grow at the pace of our curiosity and anxiety, not at the pace of opportunity.