The Filter: What Happens When There is Too Much?

I don’t think my monkey brain was built to be a filter.

Maybe it’s inappropriate to ask whether the human brain has evolved for the situation which confronts it now. The mechanics of evolution demand that the situation comes first, and then those monkeys best adapted to it already, through genetic accident, are the ones who prosper. And of course it is reductive to speak of you, blogreader sapiens, as a monkey. It may be a logical truism that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually write Hamlet, but it is an historical fact that we are the only strain of monkey to have engineered the typewriter.

Still, the pace of change has increased. I remember reading of a lake in Africa which has shores littered with knapped flint hand-axes. The range in age of the stone tools was astonishing: humans and proto-humans had come to the shores of this lake, and made their primary tool – the hand-axe – on its conveniently stony beaches for millennia. writes that the Acheulean hand-axe “date[s from] between about 1.76 million and 100,000 years ago”.

1,660,000 years of stone hand-axes. That’s a time-frame that biology can work with. The last human to regard a hand-axe as (forgive me) cutting-edge will, if the use of hand-axes was vital to our species, have been considerably better allied to her weapon in mind and body than her ancestor sixteen millennia earlier. Genetics and technology would have developed side-by-side.

But the shock of the new operates on an accelerando.

Which is why, though we tread warily lest we reduce human history to a telos, it is still valid to quote the great Terry Pratchett:

It’s very hard to talk quantum using a language originally
designed to tell other monkeys where the ripe fruit is.

(Night Watch, 2002)

Picture: graphicus_art at DeviantART

*                 *                *

When you look for ripe fruit, you are trying to accumulate. You want as much ripe fruit as the jungle will offer. A brain whose biology is hunter-gatherer is tooled towards relentless acquisition.

So what happens when there is too much?

*                 *                *

Another half-remembered source: I recall reading that a “literal renaissance man” – a man from 14th-Century Italy – is the most recent conceivable human to have read every book in the Western tradition. Even then I cannot imagine the feat is more than logically possible; our brave eyeglutton would have had to hot-foot it between monastic libraries, read at incredible speed whilst there, had trains of servants to catch up with him en route to stuff the latest scrolls out of Rome into his saddlebags.

Thus is born the critic. Will Self recently had a go at Mark Kermode for sanctifying the role of the arts critic, but without other people to tell us what is worth reading, we’d never read anything at all – the chances of picking up a wodge of impenetrable prose or a masturbatory exercise in self-indulgence or a tract of bilious hate or even, simply, a book written in a language we didn’t understand, would be so great that it wouldn’t be worth the fuss. So agents read slushpiles to see what is worth sending to publishers, and publishers riffle through submissions to see what is worth publishing, and critics pour over review copies to see what is worth recommending, and we the great-to-the-nth-grandchildren of the Renaissance Man, we pick up books and read the publishers’ blurbs and see what critics are quoted on the covers. We, for the most part, trust to the Gatekeepers.


This is only the printing of fiction: equivalent processes take place in film, gaming, science, literary academia, recorded music: any established area of informative or aesthetic transfer between human minds, between giver and receiver. Radio and television have become less filtered as the number of channels has increased, but even then a programme needs to be pitched, commissioned, made and put on air before one can sit in front of the box and drink it in.

But then there is the internet, which offers unfiltered and thinly-filtered content in a neverending deluge. Anyone can write a blog, a tweet, or even make a website with only a bare minimum of literacy and technological competency. Example: you are reading this. Perhaps you are reading this because an Internet Critic has printed it out on soft, cream vellum and brought it to you in your study. It is unlikely.

Personally, I am finding that my filter is stretched thin. This is not because of technological inability: if anything, the reverse. My generation and peer group are digital natives, more adept than most at finding what they need to on the (o, newly-archaic idiom!) information superhighway. When I need ripe fruit, I can pluck it adroitly. The digital Gatekeepers are not limiters but enablers: Google and Facebook and the more rarified academic and library databases are wonderful at bringing me information. But they want me to glut myself. Our Renaissance Man would have had to dedicate his life to information intake to read everything that was written: I could simply read my Twitter feed as it scrolls past for every waking hour, and I still wouldn’t even have read a significant proportion of what is written on Twitter. With 500 million tweets every day, I’d probably have read on average about … none of it. As Douglas Adams wrote, the population of the universe is statistically zero, and “people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”

Charlie Brooker, always better than most at articulating what it is that the Void says when the Void chooses to scream back, writes:

My attention span was never great, but modern technology has halved it, and halved it again, and again and again, down to an atomic level, and now there’s nothing discernible left. Back in that room, bombarded by alerts and emails, repeatedly tapping search terms into Google Instant for no good reason, playing mindless pinball with words and images, tumbling down countless little attention-vortexes, plunging into one split-second coma after another, I began to feel I was neither in control nor 100% physically present. I wasn’t using the computer. The computer was using me – to keep its keys warm.

(Guardian, 2010)

*                 *                *

I am not a technophobe. I do not reject the democratizing aspects of the internet, or the garden of delights which it offers me. I’ve backed up several points in this post with links, and as I write it I’m listening to music on Spotify, a writing-prop every bit as essential as the cup within reach of my left hand.

Curiously, and to digress completely, it’s almost entirely irrelevant what the cup holds, save that it bears drinking slowly, and has an active ingredient. A beer is as good as a coffee. Tea, whisky, mint tea or lemsip all serve admirably.


To un-digress: It is a good thing that through JSTOR and my university library’s website I can access sparkling (or turgid) scholarship on any field I choose to explore. That Project Gutenberg will give me the works of Joyce and Plato and Perkins Gilman even as Spotify allows me to vacillate between Goldfrapp and Trivium, or, say, Schoenberg if I had rather better taste than I do. It’s edifying to converse with friends on distant continents on Facebook, it’s convenient that I can turn up to a station to catch a train with all my tickets stored in emails on my phone, it’s amusing to watch QI over dinner on my laptop screen. If there’s a problem, it’s not the technology; it’s the filter. It’s keeping enough of it out.

Because sometimes my monkey-brain just gorges itself, stuffing ripe and unripe digifruit in through its eyes, and suddenly I’ve lost an hour just – being gently amused by a humour website. Checking Facebook to see if I’ve had an entertaining reply to a comment I made. Randall Munroe discusses the same “problem” in the comic below, and comments further on his solution in this blog here. The ability to fixate on novelty and learning which enabled a species to hone and perfect handaxes by the shores of a lake for one-and-two-thirds-million-years has overloaded. I have turned up to the lake, and every person here is making a different handaxe, in a different way, and I’m so excited and so thrilled by the vision of a million different ideas that I sprint from knapper to knapper, and gawk at their differences of technique or the colours of their stone flakes, their alteration of hard and soft hammer, the way they grasp the stone. And sometimes I fall asleep on the hard beach before I have even begun to make anything of my own.


*                 *                *

The filter can be bolstered by forethought. Gimmicks like StayFocusd and the Pomodoro technique are effective because they keep the superego awake, to judge which things are worthwhile and which aren’t (and if there’s a singular emotion behind this post, it’s frustration at my inconsistency at upholding this decision. Scrolling through online news, or comics, or sports coverage is grand, but I’d rather only do it if I want to).

Perhaps the digital generation, though we have more available to us, does have one more barrier between us and the glut than the previous generations for whom the first port of call for technological information-consumption was the television. At least with a YouTube video you have to click on it: for a character like the mother in Requiem for a Dream, all the TV needs to be is on, and the entire day has disappeared. And when you do need/want to have the computer on for other reasons, devices like StayFocusd can be helpful to remind yourself what the superego would prefer you didn’t click.


“Productivity techniques” are a little goal-oriented, though; great when you’ve got an essay due which you need to concentrate on, but hard to square with the idea of productive, fluid, free time: I love time spent switching idly between playing a little guitar, doing a little writing, making some tea, reading for class, checking my Facebook in passing to inflict terrible puns and wearisome opinions on the people unlucky enough to be friends with me, even just spacing out and staring at a wall for a bit.

There’s such a fuzzy line between that kind of pleasant time-killing, though, and the less edifying time-wasting that makes me think ”Eugh, what have I been doing with the last two hours?”, that there is no prescriptive cure for an inefficient filter. You just have to stay mentally alert, and try to bear in mind that there are idle activities which you’ll be glad you did, and idle activities which you won’t, and you have to keep an eye out lest your downtime slide over into the latter.

Which is no doubt one hell of an anti-climax for anyone who’s been reading this not for enjoyment, but because they’re hoping for an inspirational, useful or even orderly end to this rage against the machine.

So sorry for wasting your time.


12 thoughts on “The Filter: What Happens When There is Too Much?

    1. Thanks :) Out of interest, how did you come across it? Always interesting to know how people stumble onto these things…

      I’ve had a brief glance at your page too, looks interesting!

      1. Easy! If there’s a tag in a new post made on inkposts that relates to something I don’t usually search for, I explore it. In this case, “the internet” was tagged in our latest entry, so I thought I’d give it a look to see what everyone else is saying about it.

        It’s a pretty unusual way to find stuff but I’m always making sure our posts written correctly, so if I have the time then I like to explore the tags. :D

      2. Ah, nice to know that stumbling idly around the internet took you to my post on stumbling idly around the internet. I note your site has a 350-word limit for fiction submissions, that’s pretty intense!

    1. P.S. This site has been most helpful to me lately, re: Getting My Shit Together Like a Goddamn Adult Because Seriously: If you’re the kind of person who responds well to having set goals and rewards for reaching them, it’s kind of an amazing tool.

      1. If I had to list adjectives pertinent to this article, it would have been quite some time before I got to “succinct”… please do link your friends though, I’ll look forward to a puzzled influx of traffic from Seattle wondering why they’re reading about hand-axes.

        HabitRPG looks hilarious — though probably in the Pomodoro bucket, in that it seems more useful for achieving specific goals than just being pleasantly undistracted.

      2. Perhaps “illustrative” would be a better word than “succinct” in this case….

        I mostly use it for incredibly mundane tasks that I ought to be able to manage on my own, but can’t because I lack Adultishness. Like remembering to brush my teeth. But I also have things that I enjoy doing that aren’t necessarily productive in the traditional sense, like “read for at least 15 minutes.” It’s easier to justify doing “time-wasting” things I like if I make them into goals.

        Another thing I’ve started doing recently is periodically asking myself, “is what I’m doing right now productive?” It’s usually enough of a kick in the pants to get me off twitter and doing what I’m suppose to be doing. Of course, this only works if you re-define “productive” to include things like “doing absolutely nothing in order to restore mental equilibrium and prevent myself from losing my goddamn mind trying to do ALL OF THE THINGS.” Priorities.

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