Friday, January 3, 2014

Too Much Information

It’s always seemed to me that clarity of vision—seeing things as they are, not falling prey to self-serving delusions, having a firm grasp of the distinction between reality and fantasy—it’s always seemed to me that knowing how things are out there in the world is the ultimate sign of mental wellbeing and stability. And the inverse, I’ve also always thought, must also be true. And, indeed, it has always seemed to me that one of the hallmarks of mentally unstable people is precisely their inability to distinguish clearly between reality and fantasy, between fact and fiction. All that being the case, a clear sense of how things are—and of where we stand in terms of the most important of life’s variable factors—should be something to cultivate in ourselves. And to encourage in others as well, and particularly in young people just embarking on the kind of self-invention that leads to the enjoyment of successful adult lives.

I have, however, completely changed my mind—or almost completely—in the wake of my discovery of a machine that can ably assist any of us to do just all those things I just said I’ve always taken to characterize mentally stable, healthy adults. To my surprise, I want nothing of it!

I am thinking of a new alarm clock. I don’t actually need a new clock. I already have one on my night table, and it’s a nice one too with big red numbers. Joan has one on her night table too. We have any number of other ones too throughout the house. Plus our phones have alarm clocks built into them, as does Joan’s iPad. The last thing, in fact, we need is a new alarm clock. But this clock to which I refer is not just any alarm clock. It is an alarm clock in the sense that it tells time and has an alarm feature that you can set to go off at a particular time. But that is hardly what makes this specific clock special. Designed by Alexis Bedoret, Ryan Gury, Todd Sussman, and Al Kelly of the Chicago-based company FIG and Dan Sperling of PHAW Architectural Woodworks, a company based in the Bronx, this alarm clock also has three other features, one more horrifying than the next.

If you program it properly and allow it to stay in touch through the ether with your bank, with your Facebook page (I’m sure the designers are young enough never to have met anyone who doesn’t have one), and with your insurance company, the clock will wake you every morning with three pieces of information.

First, you can wake up each and every morning to the specific number of dollars you have in the bank. You can choose which accounts to include and with which institutions the machine should check in the minutes before the alarm goes off at whatever time you’ve set it for. You can decide whether you wish to include funds segregated in pension funds or in IRAs or similar investment accounts. You can include monies you have squirrelled away in whatever savings or brokerage accounts you wish.  And then, when you’re all done, you can wake up, assuming you have a savings account with $12,741 in it and that’s the only account you’ve chosen to include, to this:

But the machine hasn’t even started. Not really! Because the next thing it will do is tell you exactly how many friends you have. It can simply access the number from Facebook. Or you can offer some alternate on-line catalogue of people you know, for example your e-mail address book or the contacts list from your phone. But one way or the other, if whatever source you’ve sent the clock to check yields 761 names, you will then wake up to this:

And then, if you aren’t depressed enough—let’s say, for examples, that you have a huge amount of money in the bank and more friends than you could possibly ever keep up with—the machine will then tell you how many days you have left to live.

Obviously, no one knows when his or her time is going to be up. But there are in this world all sorts of actuarial tables that help insurance companies decide for how long and for how much they should reasonably be willing to insure your life without inadvertently bankrupting themselves. So you feed all your data into the machine—there’s a whole computer program, I’m sure, that makes this doable. You tell it how old you are, whether you’re male or female, how old your parents and grandparents are or how old they were when they departed this world for the World of Truth, whether you smoke, how often you drink alcohol, how much you weigh, how tall you are, what diseases you’ve had over the years, what surgeries you’ve gone through, and a million other details. And then it tells you this:

Is that a long time? 16,561 days is 45.37 years. If you’re seventy, this would be a very welcome piece of information to wake up to.  If you’re twenty, not so welcome!  Depending on where you fall on the scale between twenty and seventy…that’s how delighted you’ll be to jump out of bed in the morning knowing that tomorrow morning the machine is going to tell you that your actuarial tables predict a future of only 16,560 days. You could take it as welcome encouragement to make every day matter, to do some good every single day of your life. But why is it that I do not think that is how most people would respond to this specific piece of information being foisted on them even before they’re out of bed in the morning?

I personally will not be buying a FIG alarm clock. (For one thing, it would be a waste of money since I’m sure I would get out of bed that first morning, throw the damned thing out the window, and be done with it.) But now that I find myself thinking about it…I find myself wondering why, if I truly believe that knowing how things are and where you stand is such a mentally healthy, adult thing….why, if I truly do think that living in a delusional fantasy world is not  a good thing…then why exactly do I so vehemently not want to know how much money I have in the bank, how many friends I have accessible to me, and how long I have to do all the various things that I keep telling myself I will definitely get to…eventually? That is the question I wish to write about today.

I heard an interesting interview on NPR the other day with Roy F. Baumeister, the president of the Society for the Study of Motivation, an interdisciplinary organization of researchers who study motivation. (You can hear it too, if you are reading this electronically, by clicking here.) He was discussing this FIG alarm clock and it was, in fact, that interview that made me decide to write to you about the clock this week.

He had a lot to say, but what really caught my attention was his observation that the notion that mentally ill people lack a clear grasp of reality is often belied by the actual data and, in fact, it is often mentally healthy people who consciously choose to ignore aspects of reality that will make them unlikely to move forward in life. Indeed, he noted, depressed people are often entirely realistic…and more so than their non-depressed co-citizens. They are the ones, after all, who don’t bother writing novels because they know what the odds are of getting published actually are. They don’t buy lottery tickets either, because they know the chances of winning are infinitesimal.  Knowing that they will eventually leave this world, it seems peculiar to care about much—in the end, whatever you earn will end up in somebody else’s pocket anyway! In all these details, they are completely correct. (The chances of being the big winner in the Powerball lottery are 1 in 175 million. By way of comparison, the chances that a woman will give birth to identical quadruplets is 1 in 13 million. I have no idea how to calculate the odds of an identical quadruplet winning the Powerball, but I can tell you it’s not great.) 

So it turns out I was wrong. And also not wrong. There’s seeing clearly. But there’s also seeing too clearly. Knowing how things truly are is a good thing…in small doses. In other words, if you’re about to spend a fortune on tickets to Peru, it’s really a very good idea to know in advance if someone your age and stage will actually be able to climb all the way up to the top of Machu Picchu. If you’re about to buy very expensive car, it’s probably a good plan to know if you can afford it before you actually get to the dealer and start writing checks.  But there’s also such a thing as knowing too much! Since we are all mortal, we all have a specific number of days left. But what good could possibly come from being smacked in the face with that information even before we’ve brushed our teeth in the morning? Some things it’s best to know…just not in too much detail.  It’s hard to say why I don’t want to know how much money I have in the bank exactly, although I’m sure I don’t.  I certainly don’t want to know how many friends I have. (And the list of contacts in my e-mail program is certainly not a list of them at any rate, nor would be the list of “friends” on my Facebook page if I had such a thing.) And least of all do I want to know how much time I have left. It’s enough to know that it’s finite without having to know exactly what my insurance company thinks the specific number of breaths I have yet to take is.  Still, knowing that life is finite is a good thing. It’s what propels people forward. In a certain sense, mortality is what makes life meaningful. And precious. It’s just that certain truths are best digested whole and not in bite-sized (or byte-sized) pieces. You really can see some things more clearly at a distance!

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