What good is information? (Aeon)

An essay about the journey from information to meaning, how LSD helped create the story of the internet, and why we’re still bored when we have Google.

On my morning bus into town, every teenager and every grown-up sits there staring into their little infinity machine: a pocket-sized window onto more words than any of us could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, more pictures of people getting naked than we could ever get off to. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable, this cornucopia of information. Those of us who were already more or less adults when it arrived wonder at how different it must be to be young now. ‘How can any kid be bored when they have Google?’ I remember hearing someone ask.

The question came back to me recently when I read about a 23-year-old British woman sent to prison for sending rape threats to a feminist campaigner over Twitter. Her explanation for her actions was that she was ‘off her face’ and ‘bored’.

Read the full version at Aeon magazine.

The Dark Shapes Ahead

The dark shapes ahead are islands. Beyond them the sea shines and the sky seems a soft reflection of its light, and beyond both of these, the faded darkness of the next line of islands. This goes on for hours.

The thousands of islands – tens of thousands – that merge into the Stockholm archipelago are one of the gentle wonders of Europe. This side of midsummer, their trees are a deep green that fades easily into darkness on a cloudy evening. Here and there, where land meets water, a red-painted house by a small landing stage. Where the channel tightens, you can see old fortifications: a marker of the times in which Sweden was a great power in Europe, and in which power in Europe was settled with armies and navies.

Today, the big ships sailing through these straits are cruise liners and ferries full of Swedish and Finnish holidaymakers. Three hours into the crossing, as we pass into the open waters of the Baltic, the disco of the MS Silja Serenade is screaming with children in party clothes playing musical statues.

*

We are living through a moment of crisis in Europe of a kind that has not been seen for generations: not since the 1930s, or the summer of 1914. I hear this from people whose reading of events I do not find easy to dismiss, and I see traces of it in the news stories I follow. I do not think it is possible to talk about ‘resilience’ in Europe today without doing so against this background.

And yet it remains a conscious effort to hold this in focus, while the blur of normality goes on around us.

*

All week the air seemed to be holding its breath, until by Saturday the only answer was water. We went swimming twice: diving in the afternoon from a jetty at Ulriksdal, then again at almost midnight, closer to home, the sky not fully dark, walking down to the shore in our dressing gowns. The surface of the water was black and silver, a different substance to the one we swam in earlier.

I had been thinking about the slipperiness of history, how it escapes our grasp. When we study a war in school, the first facts we learn are the last to be known to anyone who lived through it: when it was over and which side won. Those who do not remember the past may be condemned to repeat it, but hindsight is very nearly the opposite of memory. To remember is to be returned to a reality that was not yet inevitable, to recall the events which shaped our lives when they might still have gone otherwise.

*

I imagine conversations taking place in Europe in the 1930s, as history darkens, and two thoughts come from this.
First, that there is no wise moment to leave a bad situation, when leaving carries a cost. There is only a choice between two kinds of foolishness: to be too early and risk losing much for nothing, or to be too late and risk not being able to leave at all.

Then, a second thought, that leaving may not be an answer to anything. This is not to speak against self-preservation, only to notice that it is not always a sufficient cause to carry us through.

If someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be: to take responsibility for the survival of something that matters deeply. Whatever that is, your best action might then be to get it out of harm’s way, or to put yourself in harm’s way on its behalf, or anything else your sense of responsibility tells you.

It seems to me that, if we can talk about such a thing as the tasks of resilience, then today these tasks will share that quality of taking responsibility: not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical, and may be different for each of us.

This was written in July 2012 as part of The Resilients project. I had been invited to make a journey around Europe in search of ‘cultural resilience’, which I came to think of as ‘the capacity to endure’. The website for the project is gone now, but a little more information can be found here.

Image: fhwrdh