Speed of Light

Our Quest for Fire

When I go away or have a guest for a weekend, I tend to almost entirely unplug from the internet. I stay off Twitter, I don't check emails, my feed reader stays closed. It's refreshing and recharging, and I highly recommend taking this approach.

When I come back to my normal routine, I'm often faced with an overload of backlogged content. I have a compulsion to read all the news item in my feeds, to check every email and thing on Twitter. I need to be caught up. To me, this is like a reversed form of Caterina Fake's Fear of Missing Out:

FOMO -Fear of Missing Out- is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does. Many people have studied the game mechanics that keep people collecting things (points, trophies, check-ins, mayorships, kudos). Others have studied how the neurochemistry that keeps us checking Facebook every five minutes is similar to the neurochemistry fueling addiction. Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You're home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you're participating, not missing out, even when you are.

This Fear isn't about missing out on things which are happening in the real world because I'm out experiencing things in the real world! But instead, it's a fear of missing out on what's been happening in all the other parts of the world where I wasn't. We're so connected to each other these days that if I don't know about new software, or drama between tech writers or tech podcasts or whatever, I'm left with a feeling like I've missed a bunch.

But I haven't really missed anything.

There's an ever increasing torrent of information we flood ourselves with every day. Thousands of tweets and unread counts to be rectified, and if you read through them and actually evaluate what they say, you'll find you're not really missing anything important at all. Any of the “big news” gets rehashed over and over again, so even though constant attention wasn't paid to it, somehow you still found your way to it. And everything else didn't really matter very much in the first place.

I've been ruminating over this in my head for a while now. Why do I have a compulsion and anxiety to read it all? Why do I have to know? Why does it feel so important when I know it isn't?

We humans are amongst the curiousest animals on this planet, in both senses of the word. Our curiosity has propelled us to become the animals we are today. Our ancestors quested for and mastered fire to propel them forward. Today, we are on a Quest for Knowledge, one that burns deeply within us all. Like fire, those who hold knowledge have great advantages over those without. And like fire, knowledge quickly spreads. But like fire, too much knowledge can both burn us and burn us out.