Old is the New New

A quote from the introduction to the book Affluenza recently caught my attention.

Little in this book is truly new information, yet the issue in this “information age” isn’t more information. It’s how to make sense of what we already know. (8)

I often feel like my new method of blogging is somehow antiquated and out of touch. Mostly I’m reading books, most of which are at least 20 years old, if not more, and commenting on them. Otherwise I’m commenting on connections between a book that is thousands of years old and our modern world. I remember when I first started blogging (way back in 2002 or so at a blog called My Four Walls) it seemed like blogging was all about keeping up with the virtual Joneses. I was always trying to find something others hadn’t linked to, but making sure that I linked to what everyone else was linking. It was a vicious cycle that really didn’t involve a lot of critical thinking and was mostly consumed with what the latest thing was online or in the news.

Now I am in no position to keep up that pace. My sources of news (radio and old newspapers sent from Santa Cruz) are primarily in Spanish, in which I am not fluent enough yet to understand everything. My access to the internet amounts to about 1 hour a week at a very slow internet café, which means I can almost read and respond to all my email for work and friends. This has been a hard transition for a former news junkie. I do feel like I am out of touch with what’s going on in the world. The jokes on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me are often lost on me now (someone named Snookie wrote a book and I’m not sure why that’s funny, except for the obvious).

Yet the truth is I am only out of touch with a part of the world. I am now much more in touch with another part of the world. I know more about what’s happening in Bolivian politics and life than anyone I know back home. What’s more I know more than any other Americans (there are some Canadians and other foreigners here, but no other Americans) about what’s happening in the municipality of Charagua. I might know more than most Bolivians what is going on in my little corner of Charagua Estación. I know more about my neighbors than the people who live across town. I know more about my own garden, composting toilet system and family than anyone else in the entire world.

While I still think it’s important to know what is going on in the world, there is no way to keep up with all the news everywhere. Our “information age” keeps up the illusion that we really can keep up with everything that’s going on. If reading books is too much you can just read a blog. If that’s too much like actual reading you can settle for 140 characters or less on twitter. It’s not just that there is more information available, but now there are more and more tools, like twitter, and tools to manage and keep up with those tools, like tweet deck, which all promise that we will be able to consume more information than is really possible or necessary.

This is where we must take a deep breath and step back… Go ahead…Take as much time as you need… No, really, go ahead…

The lie is that whatever is important to know about is happening somewhere else, unless you live in New York. Then again, even the New York Times spends more ink on things other than local New York affairs. The other lie is that the only things worth knowing or reading are things that happened or were published as close to the present as possible. The hard part is that the present seems to always recede into the past, making it difficult for something new to stay new. The nice part about old things is that they stay old. They get older, but it’s more like a good vintage wine that grows better with age than a plastic bauble that only disintegrates.

I was gently chided not that long ago that something I had read and was writing about on this blog was “outdated”. The comment came from a fellow Christian, which makes it all the more ironic, since we both consider an ancient text the most important in our lives. It is interesting that the comment that something is “outdated” is a way of instantly dismissing it. The criteria for approving of or dismissing of ideas must certainly be more than the date of publication. Calling something “outdated” does not deal with the content, only the age, of a particular text. Numbers, figures and statistics change over time and they are an important part of understanding the world, especially as it changes so rapidly. Perhaps, as often is the case, it is a question of where we find balance between being obsessed with the latest and greatest and pining for a nostalgic era of ignorant bliss. It takes a concerted effort in our day (unless of course you move somewhere that forces you to change) to strike this balance.

The critical problem we face is “how to make sense of what we already know”. More information or new information is not going to help us make sense of the world or move forward. It may be that the wisdom culled over time is what is crucial for dealing with the problems we face today. Any limit is arbitrary, but it seems that 20 years is enough time for the chaff to blow away and the wheat to settle in your threshing basket. I only wonder if in a world of commodification, “old” would be co-opted and somehow transmogrified into an elderly version of the new.