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Too much information

May 29, 2014

We use the term ‘big data’ quite a lot these days, to describe the increasingly humungous amount of information floating around about our everyday lives. This data is of course useful, and sometimes interesting, but I do wonder, quite often, if it doesn’t just make our lives that little bit more complicated. Take the following (rather convoluted) example.

 
Ben and I have been watching Fargo on the TV, a ten-part US drama based on the film of the same name. We thought long and hard before embarking upon such a commitment, knowing it was highly unlikely we would remember to turn the telly on every Sunday at 9pm for two-and-a-half months. And we had to factor in our thrumming social life. And indeed, four weeks in, we missed an episode. Well, it wasn’t a problem – we could catch it on repeat. Everything repeats. Except, I’m too dumb to fathom my TV guide app, and thought that a show scheduled for 12.05 am on a Tuesday would air on a Tuesday night. Ah well, there was a further opportunity to watch it on channel 24-7. But no, our particular brand (cheap) of freeview box doesn’t get that channel. Nor could I watch it via the internet, on 4OD, as (due to our thinband© internet connection) by the time it had buffered and loaded, the next two episodes would have aired and I would have missed several meals.

 
We were therefore forced to sit through the next installment the following week, scratching our heads, wondering what on earth could have happened in the preceding episode to propel the plot to this point. I imagine we will do this at least twice more over the course of the rest of the series, and will arrive at ever-more outlandish plot twists to enable us to complete the story.
We don’t have a very good technological set up on the boat. Our TV cost £30 and goes fuzzy when a freight train thunders past. Our laptop takes 20 minutes to boot up and enjoys chewing up and spitting out DVDs. Our DVD player is minus a remote control, and whenever we try and operate any of these devices, our lights flicker.

 
None of this matters in the summer as we don’t really watch television, preferring instead to go outside and watch the wonder that is an 108-year-old boat slowly dissolve into the river, applying fresh new paint to fresh new rust. Funds that could go towards a functioning digi box or a reliable computer are (sometimes literally) sucked into electric toilets, pumps, batteries and rusty pieces of machinery.

 
But this past winter, during the long soggy nights, to distract us from the drips and leaks and chemical reactions that are slowly turning load-bearing superstructure into mushy papier mâché, we’ve watched a fair amount of telly, and the odd boxset. And I’ve realised that, in general, all our new technology, all our gadgets, and wireless fandaggery, have just made our lives harder.

 
I was so convinced that Fargo would be repeated, replayed on a different channel, or watchable via the internet, that I didn’t really worry that I’d missed it during its usual slot. And I also knew that, should I not be able to watch it, I could read one of at least half a dozen online episode reviews, and via a garbled, at times illiterate, but surprisingly comprehensive account, get back up to date. We are in a world now where information rules our lives, where nothing is actually lost, where we can finally answer the philosophical question – if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound? Yes, because some bugger will have filmed it and put it on YouTube.

 
I turn 35 this year and am poised for groans of ‘shut up Grandma!’ – but seriously, who amongst us wouldn’t go back to (at least selective parts of) the good old days, when you had a VHS that would reliably record things, and if you missed a programme you somehow managed to rebuild your life and move on.

 
In those good old days of VHS, I could easily have taped the programme, or the repeat, and watched it at my leisure. You want to watch something, hit record. You don’t want it anymore, tape over it. We don’t require terabytes of data, there is no necessity for ‘the cloud’. We don’t need 37 remote controls to watch one (probably quite bad) programme.

 
But very sadly, the humble video recorder is no more and since I refuse to spend upwards of £200 on a digi box, we have no means of recording programmes. Even if I could afford one, I hate the things. I remember my mum telling me patiently that she couldn’t record a documentary on Blur that I had just seen was on, because it had already started.

 
“That’s ok,” I reassured her. “I don’t mind if I missed the first few minutes. There’s still 55 minutes of blurry goodness occurring on the box whilst I’m sat on this infernal train; just hit record now.”

 
Only to be told, no, that’s no longer possible – once a programme has started the ability to tape ceases, like the doors of a cinema shut smartly in your face by a jobsworth usher who refuses to let you in once the trailers have begun.

 
Why have we made life so difficult? These supposedly labour-saving devices end up breaking, operating unintelligently, and using up legions of data we don’t need.

 
It’s everywhere. Our lives are logged and loaded in meticulous detail. From the 17,000 emails that languish in my inbox (which, incidentally, have used enough energy to heat a four bedroomed house over a winter to get there) to my ten-page bank statement; from my seismographic klout score index to the number of miles I can safely drive until coming to a spluttering stop (I’m masochistically tempted to try overshooting this), my life, my thoughts, ideas, hopes, fears and every last bowel movement are documented and measured, analysed and judged.

 
Perhaps my refusal to own a ‘proper’ digi box, which will even document the images I choose to entertain me, is in some small way an act of rebellion. I can choose to know how many calories I consume and use, I can check my bank balance from one of any of the four different handheld devices I have within easy reach, but if I wish to spend my evening watching Gogglebox instead of Newsnight, at least I can go to work the next day and lie about it, safe in the knowledge there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise.

 

I think, maybe the thing that bothers me the most, is that a great deal of our ability to plan, prepare, and be responsible for our lives has gone. Everything is done for us. And with that has also disappeared our spontaneity, imagination and energy. We’re now handed choices, thousands of them, on a plate. On a nightly basis we’re given hundreds of programmes to watch, plus an infinite amount of entertainment on the internet. And if we get bored of our own entertainment we can share others, and live vicariously through our friends’ instagrammed photos, Facebook statuses, pinterest pictures and YouTube videos. We can half-watch a film on Netflix whilst deriding Ukip on Twitter and beating our high score on Candy Crush. And then go to bed and instantly forget what we experienced that evening – except of course that it’s all there in our internet history and social media activity. Our digital footprint has never been so large, yet our experiences so shallow.

 
I never intend my blogs to turn into rants (and yet…) – I was just irritated about Fargo. Seriously, who has ten free Sundays on the trot?!

 
But I really do think we can make our lives a lot simpler by abandoning the majority of our measuring devices. Because that’s really all they are. And to mis-quote a popular idiom, you can manage without what you can measure.

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