Friday, August 27, 2010

Inside the Bubble

“Ted Stevens died in a plane crash last month. Oh yeah, and Daniel Schorr died too.” Ava said this to me casually as we sat by a duck pond on Saturday morning feeding the kids a snack of raisins, crackers, and blueberry muffin bits. “I thought you might want to know.”

This is how I get my news these days, in little tidbits that slip out during moments of idle conversation. It’s how I learned about the BP oil spill, the final passage of healthcare legislation, the earthquake in Haiti, and just about anything else that has happened outside the confines of our new neighborhood. I effectively live in an information bubble. Partially a matter of circumstance and partially of my own making, the bubble is a powerful filter that keeps me largely ignorant of just about everything going on in the world right now: politics, the economy, technological developments, trends in popular culture, you name it. I can tell you astonishingly little about any of these things.

And I love it.

The bubble started forming with Pip’s birth. The TV went into a cabinet. The computer went on a shelf. They only emerged for a few minutes each night after he went to sleep. Following Polly’s birth, the increased demands on my attention gradually weaned me from a regular consumption of NPR and sports talk radio as well. Now, aside from an ongoing subscription to the Atlantic Monthly, almost all my information of the outside world comes from Ava.

In place of the global array of news and stories that I used to get from various sources, I have the intensely local experience that is caring for Pip and Polly. They provide me with such a focused, first-hand array of comedy, drama, excitement, suspense, heartwarming moments, achievements, and thrills that the second and third-hand accounts of the world that come in through the news media, Facebook, movies, and the like all feel hazy and very far away. For example, in the last twenty-four hours, Pip completed a thirty-piece puzzle of the world practically on his own, asked me to talk about car wrecks over and over (this became a physics lesson), gave Polly an actual and unprompted kiss on the cheek for the first time, and melted down into tears on at least four different occasions. For her part, Polly added the words ‘cat,’ ‘yellow,’ and ‘purple’ to her vocabulary, happily gobbled so much macaroni and cheese that I thought she would burst, pooped in the toilet for the first time, and subsequently decided to celebrate by waking up at 11:45 last night and refusing to go back to sleep until 2 AM. There is nothing that I can read or watch that will ever match all of this.

In the last month, I have had an extra chance to ruminate on the bubble. I have made two trips up to Cincinnati to check in on our house, mow the yard, and do some basic maintenance, and each time I spent the entire 90 minute journey north listening to NPR. It was like briefly visiting a place I used to live in. So much was familiar and comfortable: the voices, the music, the regular sequence of the news segments. But, as has been the case anytime I have returned somewhere after a long absence, I noticed two things that I hadn’t felt before.

The first is that with all the reports and updates and commentary and analysis, it’s difficult to tell on a daily basis what is signal and what is noise. I used to think that I could filter through all the incoming material and figure out what mattered and what didn’t. Now, after my return visit, I don’t think that’s possible. So much of what is important in any given news narrative is determined post facto. The stories I heard on my way up to Cincinnati may be critical or may be worthless. For example, did the large drop in the Dow Jones Index signal a bad turn for the economy or did it just make more room for it to pop back up? The odds are with the latter, but it all depends on what happens the next day. There is no way of knowing beforehand. If I want narratives that are efficiently meaningful, I’m better off with history books. The daily (or hourly or minute-by-minute) news is just a giant crapshoot.

And that leads me to the second thing. When I turned off the radio upon arriving in Cincinnati, I felt somewhat informed but mostly just primed with anticipation about what will happen in the coming hours and days. I wanted to listen to more news on the way back to Lexington to see how things had changed during the two hours I was away from the radio. Then I wanted to check back in the next day. It was a compulsion that while not overwhelming was significant enough to make me think, “Was I addicted to the news?”

Usually upon hearing the word ‘addiction’ I think of things like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. But the withdrawal process I went through after each trip to Cincinnati had all the patterns of a person coming off an addiction. It makes me wonder. I’ve always thought of addiction as something abhorent and outside the bounds of normality. But if something as simple as listening to the news creates this kind of attachment in me, maybe I need to reconfigure my understanding. What if the propensity to addiction is a fundamental property of being human and the only real differentiating factor is the value placed on the things you are addicted to? If I substitute the word ‘addiction’ for ‘habit,’ how does that change my view of the world? I guess these are questions for another time.

In the meantime, I know that there is a balance to be struck between the world and my kids, a certain meeting point to be found between global and local knowledges that would make me a more socially functional person. But right now I am really happy with my bubble. The kids have less than five years before we release them into the wilds of the public school system. It’s a limited time opportunity. So, I’ll take some global ignorance in exchange for a little extra sensitivity to the local details. There’ll be plenty of time to catch up on all that other news later.

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