Learning or Hoarding?

If there is one thing that I know to be true about myself, it’s that I seek information. In varying levels of obsessiveness, I create lists, categorize subjects, gather and plot titles, customize streams of radio, podcasts, audiobooks, performances. I record and tag reading lists. I use clipping tools like Instapaper and my trusty RSS reader to clip and stream from online sources. I also take physical clippings from newspapers, magazines, books, flyers, any source I come across. I take notes in Evernote, Simplenote, Moleskines, scrap pads, outlook, email. I create bibliographies in Zotero, MS Word, blogs. I take free and paid subscriptions to magazines. I have brimming bookshelves at home and work, which I purge regularly. I have lists on Amazon, IndieBooks, the public library. E-books await me in Kindle and iBooks, audiobooks lurk in Audible and on my iPod. I haven’t even mentioned SoundCloud.

Crap.

I love media. I love books, the act of reading, the act of listening, the act of absorbing and wrestling with ideas and distant thinkers. I admire journalists, poets, novelists, and writers of all stripes who take in and digest the world in so many ways. I am smitten with the proliferating ways of connecting to people and ideas, with creativity that pours out from every new medium – podcasting, blogging, independent journalism, online communities, audio experience – all of it. I delight in the care and joy that skilled narrators bring to interpreting the written word. I love when authors read their works. I am rapt when the world comes rushing to meet me through that intimate connection on the page, in the ear, in the ether and pulls all my sensibilities, my curiosity, my intellect, my imagination on a personal and common journey. I give in.

But what is it really about?

Our brains are wired to seek information, to identify patterns, to gather the useful tools that protect us from harm. We’re alive during this amazing transformation in which there is an enormous gap between how we’ve evolved and the feedback from our environment. This applies to food, to physical health, to social connection, and to information. We evolved to seek patterns and seize on new information in a world that didn’t change much, that was less crowded, in which patterns tended to correspond to actual survival concerns, and so forth. We’re still stone age hunter-gatherers, but we live in the creative economy. You can’t put a toddler in a candy store and just assume that it will work out for the best. There will be consequences.

Much of information-lust is ego. My sense of self is rewarded when I think of myself as savvy, connected, and able to navigate complicated and disparate topics. I view myself as special when I wield information expertly. Humans seek patterns, and if I’m particularly good at pattern recognition then my ego swells with pride.

Some of it is fear. Fear that I will forget. Fear that I will have missed something. Fear that I will not have appreciated or taken in enough or too shallowly. Lurking just under the surface is the awareness of fragility, of the tender brevity of life, of one’s own life. Of my life. Memory is a sentinel that I am well, that I am in control, that I have a place in this world. But it is also a sentinel for the time loaned, that you will return it.

But also, so much of it is love. I am richer for sharing the world through another’s eyes. For challenging assumptions, for discovery, for warnings, for curiosity, for playful appreciation of life.

I recognize that there are complicated feedback loops between the good, the bad and the ugly. Love feeds obsession, obsession feeds love. I do regularly clean house, mindfully trying to pare back and more deeply to appreciate less.

The real test for me is still whether I can sit in this room and simply be alone with my thoughts. So far, so good.

Learning or Hoarding?