The Internet’s Role in my Conversation Aversion

I have an uncommon aversion to talking to most people I meet. It is powered by the twin engines of my disinterest in the public contents of their brain, and my inability to get the things that might interest me out of them in a way that doesn’t make either of us uncomfortable. It leads me to come up with long tirades about boringness, predictabity, and shallowness which are neither flattering to their subjects nor myself.

It was in the midst of a conversation about this basic issue that I think I may finally have arrived at a somewhat interesting and novel point: the internet has made me more averse to average conversations than I otherwise would be. I doubt that it’s true that the internet is the reason that I have this basic aversion, but I do think it’s true that nature of the internet exacerbates this tendency I have in a way that’s led to extra consternation in myself and the people who are subjected to the effects of this aversion.

It’s relevant but not crucial that I note in advance that I came of age at the same time as the internet. I’m not completely certain, but I vaguely recall that I first used the internet at age 8. It was dialup, I had little conception of how to use it, but I knew that with the help of my parents it could take me to, and that’s all I wanted to see anyway. As I got older, we got faster modems and I saw broader and more interesting things on the internet. In 17 years a lot has changed on this little old network, and I’ve seen a lot of it, intently watching from the front row.

The internet represents, to my mind, nearly the whole of useful knowledge. That’s hardly to say that everything interesting that’s ever existed is on the internet, but there is at least some testimony to those things that are interesting and not on the internet which can be found on the internet. Surely in a pre-internet age I might have been making this same basic point–X is more compelling to me than most people–about TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books; but because of my age I’ll be talking primarily about the internet.

Because of the permissive access the internet allows, I believe some things that would be unfathomable to people in the past. I believe that information is something in nearly infinite supply from nearly infinite sources more reliable than any single person I’ve ever known. Knowledgeable opinions are so dime-a-dozen to me that the idea that I’d want a person’s uninformed opinion about anything strikes me as laughable. Things that make me laugh? I reliably secure that on the internet, and it’s way funnier than even the funniest comedian (it, after all, contains all comedians). These beliefs culminate in this basic issue: what do you get from talking to other people that I can’t get better on the internet?

As information gathering pursuits, conversations are deeply broken. They’re useful as bias-gathering journeys, but few people have biases interesting enough to keep me attentive. People cite a sense of camaraderie that can be engendered by conversation, but I’ve never been aroused to one by idle chit-chat about the weather, sports, news headlines, or the latest events of a person’s lfe. Surely there are other benefits people think conversations provide, but it’s not useful for me to offer one sentence rebuttals to all of them.

My basic point, though, isn’t to rehash the reasons that most conversations feel hollow. It’s to convey the idea that as information becomes more universally available (something that’s been happening since the printing press, but has accelerated in the age of the internet), the value of the knowledge held by any single person declines. And the value of the information held by an average person becomes ever less remarkable. This very reality–that few people possess any knowledge or wisdom that can’t be more reliably found elsewhere–is doubtless one of the reasons that I possess such a virulent strain of conversation aversion.


Infinite Information

Perhaps I’m the only one who hadn’t realized before, but there are over six billion people in the world. Those people are, at a given time, in 6 billion different places, doing 6 billion different things, and thinking six billion different thoughts. That means that each second, 18 billion potential–but very inexact–data points are being generated. The number quickly gets into the trillions if we seek data related to say, their health. Each of those people at each of those instants had different red blood cell counts, blood glucose levels, blood alcohol levels… I won’t even try to name all the possibilities.

The simple reality is that in a given instant the world’s population if full of more information than a person could know in a lifetime. If we were to include information about other animals, the planet itself, or the universe, it becomes impossible to fathom the quantity of data that we could amass and know.

Even if we limit ourselves to information that is being recorded–written and stored, by people or computers–there’s more than a single person could reasonably expect to know. Even if we further limit ourselves to information that is available to us, there’s more than a single person could reasonably hope to know. Surely the internet’s done a lot of good things, but by making so much information available so easily it’s no longer possible for someone to have “read everything” within more than 100 feet of themselves. (Yes, I’m making the indefensible assumption that you’re never more than 100 feet from an internet connection.)

It’s because of thoughts like this that people often complain about “information overload.” With more people and more computers than ever before, there’s more stored information than ever before.

The problem with information overload is that it fails to distinguish between what a person “can know” what they “want to know.” Those 18 billion or more data points available at any second offer precious little information that I actively “want to know.” Surely I’d think it was cool to know what a random person in India, Zimbabwe, France, or Paraguay was doing right now, but that’s different than those 18 billion semi-knowable data points.

Of course internet–or is it information?–skeptics maintain that people shouldn’t be able to know only those things they “want to know.” They lament that allowing that will create a world of small groupings of self-selected people who know roughly the same information and hold roughly the same biases about it.

It’s absolutely possible that a small circle between 10 and 50 people could create enough information and media that you could spend all of your free time consuming nothing but the ideas and products of that small circle of people. This is what gives way to fears of the mythical “echo chamber” that the internet is supposed to create.

Of course, such echo chambers existed before. Then, they were generally called “small towns” and the only means of escape were geographic. Today they can exist virtually, but the price of escape is much lower. A new website is a few clicks away, not a few hundred miles.

There has alway been an infinite amount of information. Now much more of it is recorded, and thus far easier to know. The fact that there is more information recorded and accessible than ever before doesn’t mean that we’re automatically more informed than ever before, or smarter than ever before. Surely coping with all the data on the internet can be daunting task. But the possibilities that all of this information offers are so great that I would never want to go back.