I stayed up late last night, waiting with increasing agitation to reach the end of a 25,000-word New Yorker article profiling Paul Haggis, a Hollywood writer who recently quit Scientology. I am a little unsure why I read the whole thing. I have no particular interest in Scientology or in Hollywood screenwriters. I don’t even have any special interest in reading articles on the internet. What pushed me on, I think, is a strange desire to have, know, and do everything, no matter the relevance to my life.
Maybe I could get into this, I thought, this thing about being incensed at Scientology. The article I read was in-depth, extensively researched, and well-written. It was good at engendering disgust. But to get truly angry at Scientology, to get some of the sunken, righteous kind of anger you feel towards the guy who cheated on the test you studied three weeks for or the treacherous villain in a great Disney movie, I would need a deeper knowledge.
I would find other articles and exposés, carefully balancing the various viewpoints, giving them due credence, analyzing their claims and evaluating their trustworthiness. I would pore over secret documents on Wikileaks, videos of Tom Cruise on YouTube, reports of Anonymous rallies, maybe even read through L. Ron Hubbard’s books with pen in hand, fighting for rationality and truth with every ball-pointed margin note.
Then I would synthesize, carefully organizing and analyzing my broad knowledge into a coherent picture. As I delved deeper and deeper, I’d learn what information I was still missing and go after it purposefully, researching, interviewing and investigating with renewed focus until I could present, clearly and definitively, the truth.
The task would take years. Once I started on it, I brooded as I kicked my feet up on my desk, I’d probably remain interested for a couple of hours.
The problem is that Scientology is distinctly uninteresting. I already have a high confidence about what a thorough investigation would reveal. Despite my feeble background knowledge, aside from some anecdotes and historical items that I will soon forget, I learned very little from the New Yorker article – it merely gave a slight and wholly unnecessary reaffirmation to the opinion I already held. This lack of uncertainty would morph the process of investigation from one of discovery and mystery-seeking to one of dutiful, bland documentation.
Scientology has no personal significance for me since I do not know any Scientologists and the ones I don’t know leave me alone. Their human rights violations may be abhorrent, but they are a fringe group that already has far more enemies than their stature merits. I would make little difference.
Putting aside a holy war, the knowledge of Scientology I need for my own purposes is quite limited. I do not need enough knowledge to have a debate about it; it seems unlikely that more than one or two people will ever try to engage me in such a debate. All I need to know is enough to decide whether it’s worth looking into further. That doesn’t require complete certainty about Scientology’s quackery. The level of doubt acquired by reading on Wikipedia that Scientologists believe “people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature” is enough. It isn’t hard to decide, with high enough probability not to be worried about making the wrong choice, that Scientology is not worth my time.
Why then did I spend three hours reading the New Yorker article? It had merit on its own, of course. I felt respect for the thousands of hours of research, interviewing, and fact-checking that went into the article’s creation, and I appreciated the clever organization in which the article becomes more and more personal and more and more damning as we reach the very end, when the reader is already deeply invested, probably a little tired, and more willing to be told what conclusion to draw. Though these aspects interested me, I do not think they are what kept me engaged. I also don’t think I kept reading due to the sunken cost fallacy of completing the second half so as not to waste the effort spent on the first.
I kept reading not for the article itself, but because, as many things do for me, it came to represent the abstraction of “something I can absorb”. I am knowledge, the article cried to me. And however arcane or irrelevant, I have somehow associated all knowledge and skills with an entirely undue value.
Why does my bedroom contain 343 books? (I counted just now.) Some of them I know and love, but many are on topics I have only mild interest in, contain only mediocre writing, and will probably never be read beyond the introduction – and this after throwing out half my collection once a year or so when I move.
Why does my hard drive contain thousands more books as PDFs, and my Kindle several hundred? Why do I have a hundred news feeds inundating me with thousands of blog posts, videos, and news stories a week, when only ten or so feeds really excite me? Why have I bookmarked hundreds of essays online in my “interesting, but I’ll get to this later” folder?
Why do I have ten or fifteen different hobbies I occasionally fantasize about pursuing, when one or two would be plenty to provide a social outlet and fill my idle hours? Why do I have a list of more than a hundred projects that would be “good to do some day”, none of which I’ve completed?
It’s a cliche to say that this modern world is overwhelming us with noisy information. I am not concerned with having too much information available. I’m in control of what I consume. How can it be a detriment to have almost all of humanity’s knowledge at my fingertips? The problem is not one of too large a menu, but of too untamed an appetite.