My long-suffering husband Mr Frazer has been listening non-stop to a Van Morrison song called TB Sheets. It is a fantastic bluesy number from 1967. It recounts the experience of a man longing to escape from the room of his dying lover as she begs him to stay. The lyrics are simple and sparse. It isn’t terribly explicit in terms of the physical horror of her illness or the finality of her death. What makes it so ghastly and simultaneously brilliant is the shocking realism. It just sounds so believable. This song stayed with me long after it stopped playing. It kept me thinking, tortured me even. It troubled me, like good art should. But with this unease came a second and even more pressing torture…the unbearable urge to google it. Then I could know if this woman was real and if Van himself or some other man really sought to abandon her. I wanted to know something, anything, about this story in the hopes that it would somehow diminish the existential terror of it.
And yet I didn’t want to know. I wanted to retain some mystery and let the art stand for itself. I lasted three days before giving in to google. This led me to observe that my tolerance for not knowing something is much lower than it used to be. I’m shocked by how accustomed I’ve grown to being able to access information immediately. I can have song lyrics, chords, band lore and even a singer’s life history on demand. Once upon a time when a cool friend let you hold an album sleeve on which lyrics were printed (reproduced in the band’s own handwriting no less) you knew you were in the presence of something special. Awe was in order. This cool-friend access isn’t necessary anymore, for the loan of the album, the lyrics, or any of the band trivia. Anyone interested can listen for free and read up about it on Wikipedia. It’s democratic, I suppose, but what’s democratic about cool-ness?
There is a beautiful scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young where two forty-somethings who can’t remember the name of an almond confection immediately pull out their phones to search for it. They are gently reprimanded by a pair of groovy twenty-somethings who tell them “let’s just not know”. It is sort of pretentious, and sort of inspiring at the same time. Could we go back to just not knowing, or is it too late? Would we even want to? I don’t imagine Aaron Swartz would. He risked jail time and ultimately ended up losing his life in the battle for open access to research papers.
The mythology around knowledge is that it always comes at a price. In the Judeo-Christian tradition Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden as punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Norse Mythology Odin sacrificed an eye for the ability to see all that happens, as well as throwing himself on his spear and spending nine days in torture hanging from a tree. Perhaps like Swartz we are willing to pay the price for valuable information that democratises science or allows the overthrow of corrupt governments. But what have I sacrificed to know who BuzzFeed rate as the 19 sexiest philosophers in history, or what cat my personality most resembles, and was it worth it? There are obvious benefits to having so much information at our fingertips. But the gateway to almost boundless information in our pockets can also weigh us down. It’s not all helpful to know. Because this situation is still relatively new, I don’t think we as a species have developed a sufficient capacity to filter out what is worth knowing from what is sucking up our limited attention without clear benefit.
When I was in my youth, my search for information and truth came with a bitter, painfully earnest intensity. I needed to know things. If God exists. What my friends really thought about me. If love could ever really be true. Now, I can think of few things I would like to know less than what people really think about me. But I am disturbed by the fact that at times of emotional turmoil and existential angst when I am lost and have no idea what to do, I sometimes find myself unconsciously reaching for my phone, as though google could provide me with answers.