The Anxiety Of Internet

Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, had a piece in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about listening to classical music on the internet. The article was called “Infinite Playlist.” There was one passage in it that struck a chord with me:

The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes. Putting on an old-fashioned disc and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity.

The first thing this passage called to mind was a cycle I tend to fall into when I’m not very busy at work. I check Google Reader. I check Twitter. Email. I check them all again. I vaguely remember something I was supposed to be working on, but it escapes me, so I check Google Reader again. I bounce from tab to tab like a pinball. I’m not looking for anything in particular, but I keep looking… for something.

Plenty has been said about internet addiction, email addiction, and “crackberries.” But in terms of going beyond cliches, Jonah Leher provides some great insight into what is actually happening in our brains. Here’s an interesting passage from his recent post on information addiction:

What numerous experiments have found is that our dopamine neurons aren’t interested in responding to the reward itself – instead, they want to find the first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward. This is why we crave new facts: they are means of updating our old facts, of extending our cognitive models forward in time.

This is a satisfying idea. Our brains are information machines. Dopamine rewards us for finding information that explains how things work. It makes perfect evolutionary sense. The problem is that on the internet, the supply of information is seemingly infinite. So before we realize what we’re doing, we’ve spent five hours clicking, clicking, clicking. We’re not any happier, even if we’ve discovered some new tunes, videos, furniture or whatever. Then ends don’t justify the means.

This is why I go back and forth on indie rock music. It’s an endless discovery. There are always new bands. There’s one every week. The problem is that so few of them last. When’s the last time anyone mentioned Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Right now, the indie intelligentsia is telling us that we should be listening to the Dirty Projectors. I give ’em eight months.

I’m not saying that these bands are bad. I’m just saying that the whole indie rock thing sometimes feels like it doesn’t have anything to do with actual quality. It can feel more like fashion, as opposed to something timeless. And what’s the point in the constant searching unless you find something worth holding on to? Or as Mr. Ross put it, “Putting on an old-fashioned disc and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity.”


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