May 09, 2010

We are caught in an evolutionary catch-22. Several, in fact.

For almost as long as we have been on this earth, we lived a precarious existence between hunger and just enough food to survive. Our bodies learned how to store food against the ever-present probability of starvation, and our minds learned how to select food for adequate nutrition but highest caloric value. Even our tastebuds have learned to read "fatty" as "delicious".

At the same time we have been trained by millennia to become aware of small changes in our immediate family, our immediate friends, and our immediate environment. Our lives depended on it.

With the development of speech, one first-hand data stream became two, the second no longer directly first-hand. What we were told became just as important as what we sensed for ourselves. The ability to read and write further expanded our horizons, and with them the amount of information we found necessary to continued wellbeing. Only a few centuries later, the invention of printing and then of moveable type exponentially increased the amount of information available in our environment: and for the first time ever, knowing as much of it as possible was no longer relevant to survival.

In just five generations followed live distance audio, wireless audio, recorded audio, audiovisual transmission, recording, streaming, Internet updates, portable and near-constant data updates, Twittering. As quickly as we can define data filtres to sift information and limit it only to what we accept as trusted and believe to be personally relevant, our media environment comes up with new ways to feed us essentially the same information. At the same time, we ourselves become equally constant data feeds to our closest friends and to people we will never meet.

Having established the connections, we can't let go. With immediacy of access comes an equal immediacy of obligation. Twitters must be kept track of as they happen, instant messages and even old-fashioned e-mails must be answered at once. The language develops shortcuts so as not to slow down the flow of information in the slightest. Long millennia of instinct tell us that we must try to keep up with all of it regardless. There was once a time when our survival might have depended on it.

As we chain ourselves to our televisions and our iPhones trying to keep up, our bodies happily keep converting the increasing number of calories not burned into extra stores: well beyond their capacity to keep those stores healthy for our bodies as a whole. And so instinct tells us to keep trying to keep up, certain that the relevant information to solve even this dilemma will suddenly turn up out there ... somewhere.

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