John Naisbitt, author of the 1982 best-seller, Megatrends, once wrote: “We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”
This is even more true today than it was then. We now have personal and portable computers, e-mail and the web, cell-phones and 3G modems. We have a constant flood of information that, simply put, overloads our minds.
So I decided to turn off the tap.
After the splendid Maverick and Empire publications died a tragic death last year, I, like many other writers, had to fill a large hole in my soul (not to mention a noticeable dent in my income). I put my head down, stopped blogging, and got some less satisfactory but still remunerative work.
Not spending three hours a day maintaining my blog proved to be liberating, and I found I had some time left over each day to devote to gaining knowledge — in my case about naval history and the use of hand planes.
Over December last year, I spent a couple of weeks in the Cape, attending my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Instead of some bland present hurriedly picked up at the airport gift shop, I presented them with a pair of matching Imbuia side-tables I’d made myself. They were not perfect, but they were not bad for a first effort. I was gaining knowledge. Without the time I had saved, this would not have happened.
I returned home in January to an e-mail inbox overflowing with some 3000 messages. The idea of dealing with them was just too much, so I didn’t. I simply ignored it.
A week went by, and the world didn’t end. Another week passed, and since the need to earn a living wasn’t going away, I found it advisable to set up a separate e-mail account for my clients. This new account received only a few e-mails a day, and was easily dispatched before breakfast. Still I refused to even glance at the bulging mass that was my regular inbox.
Now I found that in addition to the three hours I used to spend blogging, I saved another three hours usually spent reading e-mail, responding on mailing lists, and filtering the faint signal from the flood of noise in my inbox.
A month later, the world still hadn’t ended. People who needed to get hold of me did so by phone. News I had to hear, I heard from friends. So I resolved to go cold turkey on the internet altogether.
Now, instead of getting to lunch time without having had breakfast, and suffering headaches and backaches from sitting hunched in front of my screen all day, I got my work done in no time, and had hours free each day to spare for any number of other pursuits.
For six months, I kept this up. For the first time in nearly 20 years, I lived largely offline, insulated from information, and able to pursue knowledge. (If that sounds too pompous, I’ll admit that the pursuit of knowledge involves a lot of serene pondering and relaxed conversation. In a pub.)
This made me think of the other sources of stress and overload in my life. Living in Johannesburg was one of them. The traffic drove me crazy. Regular robberies (one of which involved getting tied up at knife-point) had got me to the point where I was sleeping with an axe beside my bed. I wasn’t even taking my dogs for walks any more.
This prompted another big decision. It had been in the back of my mind for years, but in the end it took less than a month between deciding to move out of Johannesburg to moving into a new pad in Knysna.
Do I still hunger for knowledge? Of course. Do I drown in information? Not so much. Even though I still use Twitter, and did eventually return to my regular e-mail address, I’ve learnt that the world doesn’t end if you miss something. The addiction, the incessant drive to read the entire internet every morning, and to do stuff for the sake of being busy, is gone.
It’s ten to ten in the morning as I write this. I’ll bet most of my Joburg acquaintances got up as early as I did, but spent the first two hours of their day in traffic. Once I’ve sent this column off, I’ll be gazing out at the lagoon, unhurriedly contemplating whether to unpack a few more boxes. But why, as a friend perceptively asked, do today what you can put off again tomorrow?
Besides, there’s a book on the history of the Stanley Works I have yet to finish. And maybe when the weather clears up I’ll visit the yacht club to put all that book-learning about sailing into practice.