Magazine article USA TODAY

Excessive Awareness Is Driving Us Nuts

Magazine article USA TODAY

Excessive Awareness Is Driving Us Nuts

Article excerpt

I CAN'T RECALL WHO, but in a fit of frustration, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's characters blurts out, "Too much consciousness is a disease--a thorough-going disease." Although we recognize this as a redundancy, it was meant to point to something that plagues our world. Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin writes in his new book, Media Unlimited: How the Torrents and Sound Overwhelm Out Lives: "We're cursed with awareness [of] data bases, archives, libraries." We long have been told by existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as by Marxists, that the point is not so much to absorb knowledge, but to act upon it.

It may be true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but we are coming increasingly closer to appreciating the wisdom of the old folk saying that ignorance is bliss. The more we know, the more nervous we become and the less able we are to put things into perspective. It has become impossible not to "sweat the small stuff." When it comes to advertising, we had better check the small print, for as the maxim cautions, the big print giveth; the small print taketh away. We only have to listen to an announcement about some new medication's glorious effects--followed by the quiet rejoinder telling us that "this may not be for everyone" and that nausea, cramping, headaches, etc. may accompany it. Headlines give us news about likely cures for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and even old age, only then, almost as a footnote, to confess that these are still in the experimental stage and, even if successful, getting them on the market is years down the road.

Many of us are weary of the staccato of news items constantly being thrust upon us. Each month seems to bring another concern for our health: asbestos inhalation, mercury poisoning, mad cow disease, anthrax, small pox, West Nile virus, and now SARS.

The media--through TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet--bring us daily (nay, hourly) world and local reports, hype, fashion, politics, editorials, how-to projects, medical breakthroughs, etc. These all pander to the Aristotelian insight that humans have an insatiable desire to know. Yet, that sage philosopher also warned that a virtue gone to an extreme often becomes a vice.

Things were different decades ago, as information and its distribution were nowhere near as overwhelming. In the 1930s and 1940s, "Movietone News" was a special feature that unspooled with motion pictures in the local theater. The same for "Pathe News." Necessarily, these always presented stale reports, as it took days to put the "shorts" together. Still, they served a purpose in visually updating us, if belatedly, on the world scene. Those were the days when radio dominated and we looked forward to the optimistic presentation of Gabriel Heater, as he opened his program with, "There's good news tonight, folks." Even the crackling, high-pitched voice of H.V. Kaltenborn was eagerly anticipated. Few of the gathered listeners dared to interrupt those broadcasts with casual conversation. That would be as impolitic as talking during a "Lone Ranger" broadcast.

The question today is how much news--good, bad, or purely informational--can we absorb? There must be a saturation point and, perhaps, we have reached it. …

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