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Cruel and Usual Punishment

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Investigative humorist Gene Weingarten endures 24 hours of constant punditry, and lives to write about it.Editor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comCruel and Usual Punishment (Post Magazine, March 23, 2008)

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 23, 2008

THE CRUDDIEST MOMENT OF THE CRAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE ON EARTH happened as I found myself watching five televisions simultaneously, each containing a different political pundit opining on the same subject. When I looked down toward my computer screen to see what the bloggers were saying about it, I noticed that a button on my shirt had come undone.

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There I was, literally contemplating my own navel. But I didn't even crack a smile because, in the relentless drone of insipid opinion, irony no longer held any meaning.

I knew then that this whole thing had been a very poor idea, one from which I would not return undamaged. Because the clock on the wall said I still had 14 hours to go.

THE BEST-INFORMED PERSON I EVER KNEW was a friend of my grandfather's back in the Bronx, where I grew up. Every morning of every day of his life, this elderly man -- his name, as I recall, was Boris -- would dress impeccably in a suit and waistcoat and shuffle to the public library, where more than a dozen of the day's local and out-of-town newspapers were threaded through bamboo poles and hung from racks. One by one, Boris would read them all, front to back; at dusk, he would walk home alone. This daily pilgrimage was conducted with ecclesiastic solemnity, a quiet, dignified homage to the majesty of knowledge. Even as a little boy, in that intuitive if primitive way that children comprehend important things, I understood the fundamental truth that Boris was, in some clear but compelling way, a douche bag.

It is possible to know too much. It is possible to care too much. Hunger for information can become gluttony.

This has always been true, but it is more so now because the opportunities for abuse are greater. There are too many voices, competing too hard, fighting for attention, ranting, redundant, random. The dissemination of fact and opinion is no longer the sole province of people and institutions with the money to buy network monopolies or ink by the ton, as it was a half-century ago when information was delivered to us, for better or worse, like the latest 1950s-era cigarette: filtered, for an illusion of safety. Now, all is out of control. Everyone with a computer is a potential pundit; anyone with a video camera can be on a screen.

And so it has come to this: a Web site called Meme-orandum.com, which brags, in its mission statement, that it "auto-generates a news summary every 5 minutes, drawing on experts and pundits, insiders and outsiders, media professionals and amateur bloggers." Driven by algorithm, largely unimpeded by the human mind, this information-aggregating Web site offers an obsessively updated menu of hyperlinks to hundreds of morsels of political news and commentary, many of which lead to dozens more of the same, creating a bottomless pyramid of punditry, a tessellated spider work of interconnected news and opinion that canvasses virtually everything that is being publicly written or uttered minute by minute on every subject everywhere by everyone.

There's a colorful analogy for living in an age of information overload. When I couldn't remember it, I went to Google and typed in "analogy" and "information overload." Twenty-six hundredths of a second later, after combing through the published thoughts of millions of people, the search engine served up a 6,100-page hierarchy of Web hits sorted by frequency of recent usage. And there it was, second from the top:

"Information overload is like drinking from a fire hose."

Right. We're all getting hosed. No one can consume it all, nor would anyone want to try. You'd drown. So, as best we can, we try to reduce our intake to manageable, gasping, horking gulps, and, in so doing, are able to remain ignorant of the breathtaking, mind-numbing totality of it. But what of that breathtaking, mind-numbing totality? It's not like if you don't see it, it's not there. We are like those 2-year-olds who try to hide, in hide-and-seek, by standing in the middle of a room and covering their eyes.

Surely this neurotic impulse to hear and be heard means something, good or bad, about our national character. Doesn't the world need one individual with the courage and audacity to expose himself to it all -- punditry in newspapers, punditry on TV, punditry on the radio, punditry on the Web -- for 24 hours straight?

No? Well, too late.


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