Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Data Smog and Things That Last

The syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker published an article a few days ago asserting that we are "paralyzed" by soaking in so much information and data on a constant basis. Parker's fear is that by responding to everything we are gradually becoming incapable of critical thinking, and therefore will be unable to adequately respond to what is important even when it unfolds before us economically, politically or socially.

She cites the ubiquitous BlackBerry as one key culprit in this data smog pollution that has infected the global atmosphere. I felt no small pangs of guilt while reading this, seeing as I how I serve an organization that provides both BlackBerry services and devices, among other mobile communications offerings. It seems to be an honest way to make a living, but I guess I am part of the problem in a more direct sense than the mere inhalers of the data smog.

The more painful twist for me is the overall lack of reflective moments day in and day out. I observe that across the past year-and-a-half or so, it has become increasingly challenging for me to, for example, thoroughly read a book and interact with it through writing or conversation. It has been harder to follow a few deep blogs and participate as a member of the community of readers. It has felt more elusive, in general, to go deeper into larger ideas relating to spiritual formation--one of my key passions--because I am so inundated with tasks and responding to data and solving problems. And even though I have made significant progress on writing a novel, I have but a small bucket of time to do this each week and the rest of the week I am serving the data masters.

Welcome to the peril of being a contemplative in western culture. I feel chained to the data grind because it supports the lifestyle I am supposed to feel grateful to have. I do not think the economic wineskin we have stitched together allows for any happy medium; we are either full-borne intensity or we are thrown to the ash heap. Make a great living or be a pauper. Is there any in-between any more?

Metric-speak fueled by data proliferation is pervasive. Obviously it has always been central to business, but it has invaded education, publishing, religious institutions and the arts to the point where the aesthetic is more fully squeezed out by the pragmatic. Things must "work," they must "add value," they must survive a cost-benefit analysis and offer return on investment. There is little patience left for something that does not yield some crop of immediately measurable results.

And where there is no patience, there is no chance for anything worthwhile to incubate. Almost everything we produce has now become a commodity, be it a cell phone, piece of music or work of literature, and we ourselves have become commodities in the mercantile exchange we call our culture. We quickly gain or lose value, with little sustainability due to constant market shifts and new data that alters the supply and demand.

What is to be done?

I do not know. I cannot think past this week. Perhaps, at least for me, some clarity might emerge as I attempt my hardest to contemplate a garden of blood, sweat and tears; a cross bearing a Savior; and an empty tomb. These rise above the data smog. These are sustainable. They have incubated for roughly 2,000 years.


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