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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #19, 9/17/2006

Data Obesity

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Both children and adults in our society face a huge hidden threat that is hardly ever talked about. It is an addiction that zaps the resources of our nation and makes us less able to respond to the many social problems we face.

I call it "data obesity." Just as our weight, as a nation, is creeping continuously upward, so is our gluttony for empty sensory input.

In modern society, we are bombarded by audio-visual stimulation: TV, movies, video games, music, internet. Even when we resist these mass-media, our every free moment tends to be "scheduled" with stimulating activities—sports, travel, spectating of all kinds. As with the Buffet Dilemma, everything that is put on our plate we tend to eat. Most of us are powerless to resist the lure of chocolate cake when it is placed in front of us, and the same is true of all the seductive images and activities that surround us.

Even otherwise responsible citizens can become addicted to "the news," without realizing how shallow and meaningless most of it is. We are moved by one distressing news story—almost to the point of action—but then the story is immediately pushed out of consciousness by the next. The end result is that we passively watch the news (or read it), but we never take any action about it.

The burden of data obesity is that it encourages us to lead shallow and passive lives, where most of our energy is absorbed in simply keeping up with the input stream. It is equivalent to eating a lot of food but digesting very little. If you are being force-fed data all the time, then you don't have enough time to process any of it.

This can be especially devastating to children. From birth, most children are overstimulated by various forms of video input. They don't have time to think about what has happened to them and integrate it into their personality. The result is adolescents and adults who are very sophisticated in some ways but deficient in certain basic emotional skills, which never had a chance to develop.

Contrast this to what might be the ideal place to raise a child: on an island about 10 miles off the coast, without television or an internet connection. There are interesting things to do on this island, but you have to go out and find them. There is a stimulating world beyond the island, but you learn about it only gradually, at a rate you can actually absorb it. By the time you eventually leave the island and interact with the big city, you already have a stable moral system in place.

Kids who already live in the city have been force-fed data since birth, but there was never any "quiet time" in which to absorb it. Parenting of these kids is always a constant struggle against stimulation from the outside. How can a parent teach their kid one thing—about, say, personal responsibility, social contracts, self-respect or sex—while movies and television are continuously teaching something different based on their own commercial agenda?

The brain "wants" stimulation, just like it wants sugar and fat, because this is the way the human organism evolved. If you are a hunter-gatherer, it is important to pay attention to all the subtleties of the environment around you: the mood of the weather, the animal tracks in the sand, the subtle intentions of your fellow man. Infants naturally seek stimulation as part of their acquisition of language and social skills. Evolution didn't prepare us, however, for television and video games.

In our primitive past, there was never much need to protect the brain from overstimulation, because it rarely happened. There was only the slow stimulation of the natural environment and the few people who you met in person. It is like our craving for sugar and fat: These used to be rare resources, so the body wanted as much as it could get. Now that we have an excess, the body doesn't know when to stop.

One effect of overstimulation, especially in a temple to it like Las Vegas, is that it is hard to get a rise out of anyone. You can't get the populous worked up over, say, child welfare, because there are so many competing stimuli. Even intelligent, conscientious adults are overstimulated. They may believe entirely in the worthiness of your cause, but they are not going to respond to it unless they are directly affected or a persistent demand is made right in front of them.

Overstimulation breeds passivity. When you are bombarded with requests for your attention, you are only going to respond to those that are actively enforced—with, say, the force of law or the requirements of your job. Overstimulation discourages ones own independent initiative on anything. When you are drowning in data and demands, you are only going to do the bare minimum required of you to stay afloat.

As adults, we can deal with data obesity only by restricting our input — in essence, by creating an island for ourselves. I do it with my deliberate homelessness. I am not tempted by TV or most of the other devices of modern life because I simply don't have access to them. There is something to be said for a monastic existance where you cut out everything you don't need, including extraneous stimulation.

Since it is hard to resist the chocolate cake sitting in front of you, you should avoid placing yourself in this kind of compromising situation. If you make the mistake of installing 200 channels in your home, then you are probably going to watch them, even if there isn't much on. You have to make wise choices about the input channels you choose to accept. You don't have to have cable or voicemail or live in a cookie-cutter house in Summerlin. You can engineer your environment so that it is conducive to the more selective "gourmet" data profile you wish to pursue.

If you are creative, there are all sorts of options for controlling data input. One of mine is to always travel with a pair of heavy-duty, military-issue hearing protectors, as used on shooting ranges. I carry these in my car specifically for my visits to my young nephews' house in suburbia. There, the TV is usually on, and I find the chatter of a video game or sitcom very distracting to whatever I am doing. When I don my earmuffs, all that unnecessary stimulation instantly goes away.

My earmuffs look like headphones, and when the kids pass me, I pretend like I'm listening to some heavy metal rock band. In fact, I am listening to something much more precious.

The sound of silence.


Reader Comments

“AMEN Glen!!! I've been sober from TV 8 years now and it has changed my life. No video games, no ipod, just the occasional (instrumental) music on the radio. I'll forward your 'data obesity' concept onto others. THANKS!!!” —El Todopoderoso 9/8/09 (rating=4)

Ratings so far: 4 3 2 4 4 (Average=3.4)

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