The other night I was sitting in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater listening to renown physicist Brian Greene lecture about string theory, the possibility of multiple universes, and the exciting search for one unified, invisible force that connects us all — from the farthest galaxy to the smallest speck of matter. Greene was riveting and the sold-out crowd sat forward on the edge of their seats. I was both interested and impressed, but I sat back.
I was thinking about Egypt. And I couldn’t turn it off.
The story is on the opposite side of the world. I can’t smell the tear gas. I can’t hear the sound of Molotov Cocktails expoding in Tahrir Square. I don’t know a single person with any direct involvement with what’s going on in Cairo.
But the story is on my television, in my Twitter stream, on my Facebook page, spilling out of my iPhone, everywhere. My screens are a mass of particles with a gravitational force that’s pulling in minute by minute updates on a story from across the world to the front of my mind.
I’ve often been obsessed with big news stories. When I was a kid, I’d listen to my parents discuss stories from the New York Times as they glanced at the Sunday morning talk shows in the background.
But these days I’m always distracted by some news story. Today it’s Egypt, but usually it’s a comparatively tiny story about problems with the iPhone’s antenna, Vuvuzelas, Mel Gibson’s phone etiquette, or the quality of Kenneth Cole’s tweets. I have a deep knowledge about the current weather conditions in places where I don’t live. On the realtime social internet, there’s always a story and it never turns off. My personal focus depends almost entirely on what fixates the other people in the expanding universe of my online network.
A few months ago, I planned a surprise one-night getaway with my wife. About an hour before I was set to pick her up, several people I follow on Twitter started sharing early news of a potentially massive earthquake on another continent. My first thought was that I hoped there wasn’t a devastating loss of life. But almost immediately, I also thought, “Oh no, this is going to ruin my night.”
The earthquake wasn’t as serious as first feared, but if it had been, I would not have been able to turn the story off. I can no longer compartmentalize the news until the next day’s newspaper lands on my doorstep. The news is mixed in with the rest of my online life and the separation between my online and offline lives is blurred.
A few years ago, I would never have heard about that earthquake. I live in San Francisco. The deliverers of my morning news would have known that a little jiggle on the opposite side of the planet doesn’t belong on my front page.
But today, we’ve got no such editors. We’re all messengers. Every few seconds, we all have hundreds if not thousands of virtual paperboys throwing the latest version of the news into our consciousness. It’s getting more difficult to know where a global news story stops and my actual life begins.
Again, Egypt is certainly worth my attention. It makes sense that this story made its way into Herbst Theater where most of the minds in the room were trying to happily wander off to a distant universe. This week, maybe there should be an invisible ethernet cable that plugs Tahrir Square to my frontal lobe.
But soon this story will be off my screens and those who provide my constant stream of links, updates and opinions will have moved on to more mundane topics.
And I still won’t be able to turn it off.