Somehow I’ve been labeled a connoisseur of useless trivia. It doesn’t much matter that I find the TV stereotype of the know-it-all know-nothing beyond insufferable, and I’ll admit that they’re only partly to blame. When they close up the opening scene of CSI with a quip about the mating habits of jumping spiders (jamming that garbage-fact right into my ear), there’s some genetic marker in me that allows it to lay eggs in my brain which later hatch during a languid moment at a dull party. As evidenced by the loads of “Did You Know?” books I get for birthdays, Christmases, and the occasional “Just Thought I’d Spoil Your Day… Day”, others have noticed that I often have a random fact to match assorted situations.
I find this problematic. Partly it’s because the most lasting impression I appear to make is “I’m the guy that wasted 85 seconds of your life talking about the intelligence of the average octopus”. But more than that its that I keep getting these trivia books, which I hate.
Now don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the sentiment. It’s just that most people don’t realize that random (dare I say “useless”) trivia is essentially a noxious byproduct of a larger process, like carbon monoxide belching from a tailpipe. In my case I like to read, and I like to learn. As to why the random factoids cling to the crannies in my brain is unclear to me. Perhaps it’s a vestigial side effect of outmoded evolution, like the hind leg bones on a blue whale. At one time distilling information down to the most absurd bits was probably an advantage, affording my ancestors with less time spent in the belly of apex predators, or better yet supplying them with more chances to spatter fair maidens with their genetic legacy. Of course trivia certainly doesn’t work to that end any more (particularly with the fair maidens). In fact the last remaining combat ground of the trivially afflicted, the bar bet, has been usurped by anyone with access to a smartphone and the thumb speed of a middle-schooler.
Although I digress (as I frequently do), the point is that for me the factoids are not the goal, and I can hardly imagine anyone enjoying studying them as though they matter. The network of relationships that stitch them together, the undulating body of human knowledge, is what interests me. Reading a book on trivia is tantamount to turning to my own vomit, gulping down involuntary secretions.
Lately I’ve discovered a similar problem with my use of the Internet at large, particularly after my daughter was born. Such a big shift in family responsibility invariably forces one to prioritize, and my situation was no different. Torn between my career as a game developer, my ceaseless desire to write, and my desperate need to be a good husband and father, I found all the quiet in my life shattered into five to ten minute increments throughout the day. At the time it seemed that my opportunities to read and to write with significance were gone. But surely this is what the Internet was for? Distilling life into micro-transactions, I began devouring my Twitter stream and wearing the screen out on my iPhone, allocating every single waking moment to acquisition of some sort of input. I had optimized my life, and beaten the system.
Of course (and it sounds particularly stupid reading it out loud to myself now) for the same reason that those trivia books yield no substance for me, that’s not how it works. I found myself becoming increasingly uncreative, and naturally unhappy. In retrospect it seems obvious. Each action one makes in life is a decision: a decision not do something else in its place no matter how small. By filling my mind ceaselessly with the thoughts of others I was choosing to have none of my own. I was choosing not to rest. I was choosing, inadvertently, to stop creating. There is a fierce danger in a life consumed with consumption, and micro-transactions make it all seem so innocuous.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the Internet doesn’t kick ass. It does. I watched Saint Elmo’s Fire on Netflix last night and looked up all the actors on IMDB. Why? Because I could goddamn it. But I am much more careful with the web now. I call it my “Internet diet”. My smartphone stays dark during the evenings, my Twitter stream is only checked once or twice a week. Really it means that I’m extremely jealous of my boredom, which was not something I ever would have thought of when I was young. But it turns out that choosing to do nothing a few minutes a day is where my creative spark lives.
There’s something to be said about not outsourcing all our thoughts and experiences, and instead listening for the substance that is created within our own vacuum. It always helps to go back to the beginning I suppose. And no matter your faith, a void of sorts is where it always begins.