My mother loved to say I was a ‘Recessory for Useless Information.’ Presumably she believed information intrinsically had — or needed to have — utility, and that a lot of mine didn’t. But isn’t it true that no information is in fact entirely useless? Doesn’t so-called basic research in science yield the most important results and breakthroughs? I think even my mother conceded this, under duress.
And how about that movie, the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire? Didn’t a few bits of information come in awfully handy?
When I was three years old my father tested me on the capitals of each of the then-48 states. It was terribly easy back in those days, since I knew only a single city for each state; for Oregon I knew there was Salem but had never heard of cities and towns like Portland, Eugene, Ashland, Medford, Grants Pass, Antelope, Bend, Klamath Falls and suchlike. There was only “Oregon — Salem.” Was all this memorizing a waste of brainpower and brain-space, not to mention time? Or was it training that expanded the capabilities of the brain (as I would prefer to think), analogous to learning Chinese characters at age 7?
Next I memorized the populations of United States cities in 1950. I thought I needed that data to be able to picture what was actually going on in the country — where the people were accumulated and so forth.
In another year or two I decided to memorize the Periodic Table. For each element all I needed to know was its name and symbol, atomic number and group — e.g., Alkali Metals or Lanthanide Rare Earths. I loosened my belt a few notches when it came to atomic weight. This feat, much easier than it sounds, seemed ridiculous to others but five years later, as a freshman in Chem 11, the entire class was ordered to memorize that very chart.1
Maybe I should mention that at Jamaica High School, whose principal Louis Schuker was obsessed with being tops nationwide in Westinghouse Science Talent Search awards, I started memorizing for their test all the 18 orders of mammals and 24 orders of birds (Stigiformes for owls, Falconiformes for nighthawks and whippoorwills, etc.) — valuable or possibly not-so-valuable information that was etched on the twisted crags and crannies of my brain and that reliably provides access to that trove of detail to this day.
With the capabilities of today’s technologies, we are already swimming in data, in detail stacked from here to Mars and back again, and then more detail. But when it comes to information, is there even such a thing as true, bona fide waste?
To be sure, there is waste in all things, certainly in creativity — and procreativity! Don’t carp (or is it sturgeon? — or is carp maybe a type of sturgeon? — no, but a related freshwater fish) have to lay about a trillion eggs for a few to survive and replace the previous generation — just to keep ‘treading water,’ as one might say? Considering all the predators and miscellaneous hazards to the young and defenseless… So this seeming wealth and profusion merely insures survival of a species or group. Just as evil men aren’t plentiful enough to block every path to goodness, the baby carp that take one route are ambushed and massacred, but there are a thousand routes and the predators can’t cover them all! So there is virtue in quantity. But waste also helps insure quality.
In poetry, for example, or plays or novels or any other sort of literary endeavor, aren’t there a dozen crumpled papers — or deleted or forgotten documents — for each brilliant or insightful burst of daylight? Ben Jonson complained that Shakespeare had never deleted a single line: “Would that he had blotted a thousand!” famously fulminated Ben. Absolutely wrong about Shakespeare (Thank God!) but pretty much right about himself and the rest of us: Waste Makes Creativity.
But isn’t this point of view limited to our culture and our political circumstances? Isn’t it true that, even as we speak, there are parts of the world where individuals are dying because they have published something, undergoing torture because they tried to put out some shred of the perceived truth? From the solar system-point of view it’s their blood that has to be wasted to turn the wheel one tiny sprocket, to advance human history a single notch.
Yet for us here in the First World, if we didn’t have the chance to throw away much or most or possibly even almost all of what we write, would we have the openmindedness, the ‘bandwidth’ of risk-taking — would we have the strength finally to lift the ice and unearth the monsters lying 20,000 fathoms deep? What if — instead — we were faced with immediate worldwide publication of any word we typed, of every ridiculous or embarrassing, mortifying notion we came up with?2 (Yes, back in the other half of the world’s countries, that would be the revolutionaries’ dream!) What if different laws of gravity or social arrangements required that we automatically share every lurid, swarming image that swims up from our buried unconsciousness?
Would most works of modern fiction disappear, would our libraries lose 95% of their books, would the buildings collapse in on themselves as though there was no structure to hold them — as though vacuumed up from their domes into a universal waste hose? But with the fecundity of our Internet, many are “sharing” in a way that creates near-infinite new waste now — drivel every minute, every second, of every day…
But don’t those in the know tell us there are unlimited levels of infinity, that can be stacked up on each other? I hope enough of us can distinguish what is in reality endless blather — lacking in all judgment, or worse, disgusting vitriol — from what is beauty or truth, what can be part of a novel, story, movie. Maybe it’s important to know which celebrities have had liposuction. To be sure, I suspect not, but perhaps I am hopelessly ignorant, perhaps we need to await the judgment of the generation that follows us…3
However, I hope readers will not believe I am writing a tract in defense of Ben Jonson’s views, in favor of revision and mid-course maneuvers in all things. Rather I am arguing for freedom in thought and feeling. Let us know about — let us own — all that is buried inside of us, all that we can see or intimate or suss out from the world that supports and teases us. Let us let go of denying that all that is in fact real is in fact real. How many mothers had their lives cut catastrophically short in childbirth because doctors would not take seriously the seemingly absurd information about a need to wash their own hands!
Again, just because we see or feel or write it doesn’t mean we have to discuss it with our mothers or children; all that is to be decided later. The important thing is giving ourselves permission to play with a full deck. What if we were trying to paint a rainbow but the only colors we let ourselves know about were orange and black? Or to convey the experience of drinking, letting ourselves taste only apple juice and wheat beer?
What about risk, danger? Some drugs, poisons, you would not want to try; you have to rely sometimes on received ideas, or at least convincing reports. But I wouldn’t make a habit of it if I were you. Many who have done so have suffered the outcome of Dull Lives.
But tell me this, should we hold fast at every moment to the regime of down-to-earth solidity — following the no-nonsense people who kick the wastebasket to prove that we’re not imagining all this, people who have no use or patience for the imagination and who need to see something to believe it? Or should we instead insist on utter unwavering mindfulness and total focus — if that were even possible — after the people who believe that what’s unseen is what’s important and the only thing that’s real is nothingness? Or on the third hand, go to unrestraint and wild, reckless abandon? Isn’t it true that, any approach you take, most of the supposedly useless information is indeed waste, that there is no easy, foolproof way to find the little diamond in the dirt — if any!
Remember how the goddess Venus, reveling in having the girl Psyche in her power, cruelly throws before her a great mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps by dawn — or die. But when Venus withdraws to attend a wedding feast, a kind ant takes pity on Psyche, and assembles a fleet of insects to accomplish the task. That is — most of all — a thing of beauty, an action and result in which cruelty fails to defeat love. But it also demonstrates how solidarity and the sharing of unique resources can beat even the stultification of overwhelming micro-details…
Most important lesson: Don’t be so rigid or narrowly focused that, studying a scrap of bark, you wind up failing to see the whole forest… Or the forest fire behind you!!
2nd-most important lesson: Never count out the possibility of unexpected help! Even as the nasty goddess gloats, or the villain grins as our log-strapped heroine approaches the buzzsaw…
3rd-most important lesson: There is no foolproof way of knowing what information is useful and what is useless. Considering this, do what? Use all your resources, do your best.
Best chance, if dicey-est, is the unrestraint. In the interests of full disclosure you should keep in mind that selecting unrestraint risks the highest level of suffering. But with the other choices we’ve discussed — with determined solidity or with strict focus – whatever their considerable advantages — you lose too much. You need to let in a little air.
1 When I came west one summer to work at the San Francisco Navy Shipyard, I immediately memorized all 30-some east-west streets from Grove north through Jefferson. That was a memory feat with a practical use. Not so easy now, when I know all the other streets, buildings and plazas.
2 Imagine how those writers would squirm and twist in their dungeon-like carrels, who previously struggled and hesitated to make public a single word because it wasn’t as good as Homer or Shakespeare — and now find their crystalline phrases floating on a stinking sea of garbage.
3 So is one generation’s garbage another’s stock-in-trade?
© Jerry Kurtz 2016