Mindlessly seeking information, never finding knowledge?

This was posted to my Hey World feed on March 6.  I decided that I should keep all my content here, so am posting it below. I am mulling a response/follow-up which I will post here as well.

Reading Jonah Goldberg’s G-File this morning kicked off another round of ruminating about digital media.

I have been thinking about my presence in, and use of, technology and the digital world for some time. I started blogging twenty years ago.  I joined Twitter in 2008. I was the manager of new media for a U.S. Senate campaign.  I currently manage social media for a state agency as part of wider communications duties.

And I have been wrestling with how to responsibly and intelligently manage this interaction nearly from the start.  When I was a freelance consultant doing digital advocacy, I was constantly wrestling with what they now call “work-life balance.”  I had to learn to not constantly look at a screen; particularly when I moved into the world of “smart” phones (starting with a Blackberry).

The internet never shuts off so when does the workday end?  How do you separate your work online from your personal social media and from “normal” life? These questions and more were always bouncing around in my head.

But starting a few years back, I began to really question whether my use of technology and social media was a good use of my time or healthy. I bought books like How to Break Up with Your Phone and Digital Minimalism.  I deleted apps, took 30 days off social media, and tried a variety of other tactics and approaches seeking to put some distance between me and the time sucking maw that is the Internet.

I am not sure it worked all that much.

Perhaps that is too harsh. I am not addicted to the Internet and really don’t use social media all that much in the grand scheme of things.  I have basically given up Facebook except for work.  I have a tiny phone that keeps me from looking at it constantly. I read over 100 books last year.

What I have struggled with is to replace the itch of “screens” with a meaningful hobby or deeper use of my time. The point of Digital Minimalism was to embrace Deep Work.  That is what I have struggled with more than anything.

This is obviously a complex issue relating to my changing life experiences and circumstances (kids getting older, career ups and downs, long held habits and personality traits, etc.).  And the pandemic has not helped at all.  Being largely stuck at home has impacted my habits in ways I am probably not even aware of fully. The constant low-level cabin fever is something I wrestle with every day.

But one thing I am convinced of, and have really know for some time, is that I am addicted to the search for information under the assumption that it will bring wisdom and knowledge.  I’m a voracious reader but often struggle to retain what I read.  I am constantly adding articles to my reading list, and surfing the web for more, even as I digest less than I would like and read fewer than I save.  Equally with books, I buy more books than I can possibly read and even check out books from the library when I have a library at home. I feel both a panic that I will never read all the books I want to and a desire to find that next great read.

I have found that it is the search for information that drives me not the knowledge I might gain per se.  I want to be the person who knows things so I constantly scan the internet. My book addiction seems driven by the belief that if I just buy and read the right books my life-my career, my faith, my family, my politics, etc- will be better.

And yet I don’t have deep conversations with my online connections. I am not really an expert in anything; nor do I have a deep knowledge base on any particular subject. My knowledge seems a mile wide an inch deep. I have a suspicion that I think I know more than I really do.

The second and related challenge is my lack of focus. I am interested in so many subjects I really struggle to pick one and stick with it.  I jump from history to theology to politics to sports to current events always seeking to be relevant and topical but never quite getting there.  Despite reading 100 books last year, I feel like I came away with precious little wisdom or knowledge.

And my lack of focus seems to be getting worse during the pandemic. Once I met my goal of reading 100 books in a year, the motivation to read slacked.  You would think being stuck at home, without a 40 minute one way commute, would be ideal to finally tackle my collected library.  But I can’t seem to focus for long stretches of time.  It is too quiet or too loud.  The Internet calls or I want to play the new video game system I got for my kids. Or want to read a different book or a buy a gadget or eat a snack.

I bought a guitar and an app subscription thinking I would use this time to pick up a new skill but found it hard work and not all that rewarding. I bought weights for lifting but lack any consistency in using them.  I laid out plans to read a series of books on a particular topic but quickly lost interest. I have gone through periods where I can’t seem to find a book I really enjoy before so I am sure this too will pass.  But the inability to focus for more than a few minutes is the underlying challenge. I need to find a way to push through the distractions and understand that nothing truly fulfilling is easy.  And that mastery is hard work that requires time and persistence.

So what does this all mean?  I am not sure. I do know I am closer to giving up social media than I have ever been but that to do so feels like a loss of part of my life.  I have a number of friends that I met through social media and online advocacy and I am not sure how best to keep those connections without the medium of social media.  Plus, a part of me has always wanted to be a successful writer online and I am still wrestling with the fact that that dream is mostly a distraction from my actual life and career.

Maybe I can use the tail end of the pandemic to chart a path to a better place…

Stay tuned.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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