What’s Important, and What’s Not

Posted on June 11, 2015

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I used to travel quite a bit in my job, mostly into Latin America, occasionally to Europe.

I learned something in traveling that has become an even more valuable tool in my toolbox of life’s learning tools.

Let me set the background.

Today we are bombarded with news, not only coming at us from 24 hour television networks, but over computers, tablets, smart phones, and probably dozens of other electronic instruments I am not even aware of.

We carry our phones around with us, talk, text, Facebook, Tweet, and are on a constant alert for news, advice, questions, or answers. There is no “down time.” Even when we sleep, the little—often pretty darn bright—diodes and LED lights blink on through night, storing the latest for us to read in the morning.

Some of us wake up at all crazy hours of the night to check email and iPhones. I may have missed something.

Now, let me ask you. In this avalanche of never ending information, what is worth knowing? In other words, what do you need to know to function as a normal human being that day?

There is a phrase among people in the intelligence community that requires those on the receiving end to have a “need to know.”

They also classify everything from confidential to whatever the highest classification is today. It used to be something like “NATO Top Secret” but my experience with classified information goes back to the age of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I’ve seen silly things in the movies and television shows like “For the President’s Eyes Only” and other Hollywood-driven titles, but you get the drift. If you don’t need to know, then you are out of the loop.

The problem today is we have no “need-to-know” filter working in our lives. We think we need to know everything, and we end up caught in a tangled and ever growing web of useless information.

And, some would say, well, this makes us smarter, more savvy, more tuned into events and things that matter. Not according to the level of education of the average student, from first grade on through those I taught at the university level. If you’ve listened to an occasional interview with the “man in the street,” the level of ignorance is truly astounding.

“Who did we fight in our war for the Independence, the American Revolution?”
Answer: “Uh, duh, is this a trick question?”

Let me be upfront here. I think your parents, and, even better, your grandparents were better educated through high school than the average college graduate today.

The statistics are overwhelming. One of four of students at the K-12 level in Alabama is illiterate and, nationally, sixty percent don’t read at “grade level,” which is low and growing lower.

Why is this so? There all sorts of answers, from the macro ones of social, racial, and economic inequalities down to parental care and supervision. But I think a major cause is that we can’t see our way out of this box of ignorance because we are overwhelmed precisely by information.

Let me return to traveling a bit. I still go into Latin America, usually annually on a mission trip to somewhere like the Dominican Republic or Honduras. When out in the country in Honduras, we are isolated from the mainstream of information, both literally and metaphorically.

Instead of being swept along in the stream of information, seeing or hearing everything and learning nothing, we only get bits of information that are necessary for our mission.

Like, “today breakfast is on the road since we are leaving on the bus at 5:30 a.m.”
That’s good to know. Put a Granola bar or two in your pocket—you remembered to bring a bunch in your suitcase from the States, right?—to keep you going until we stop, who knows where?

Further down in Latin America, like Peru or Ecuador, I would disappear on a research trip for weeks or months at a time. I was vaguely aware of news “from home,” and only mildly interested in the local news, unless the terrorists, like in Peru, were blowing up power pylons to plunge portions of the capital city, Lima, into darkness.

I didn’t need to know mountains of information. I just needed to remember to get my laptop charged so I could work through the blackouts caused by the Shining Path terrorists, a misnomer if there ever was one.

We need to unplug sometimes. Go read a book. Try one of my favorites, John Grisham, once in a while. Step out of the tornadic stream of information blowing you around and smell the roses, go fishing, play some golf, and do what may be the hardest thing to do: leave your cell phone at home.

Published Sunday June 7, 2015 as “Battered by Too Much Information” in The Tuscaloosa News in my OpEd column, The Port Rail

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