Do You Read the New York Times, or Skim It?

A little bit of knowing, a lot of crack-smoking.

The other day in class, one of my students said, “As I’m sure you saw in this Sunday’s Times … ” Her insightful comment was on point, but I kept thinking about the assumption, As I’m sure you saw. Because knowledge is at our fingertips, there seems to be a corresponding assumption that we do know everything. From beer to politics to celebrity “news” we all know something of everything that’s going on.

Every day, I hear someone reference something with the same assuming tone, something like: “You know about the girls in New York suffering from mass hysteria?” And the listener says, “I heard about it … ” and that is enough. It has to be, because how could anyone possibly, possibly keep up with everything?

All of this is part of an overwhelming rush of knowledge and pseudo-knowledge: In so many ways, in reference to so many things, we are skimming the surface of everything in order to have a handle on it all, instead of really immersing ourselves.

I have an ongoing competition with my daughter on who will be the first to see and share film trailers. My other daughter almost always beats me at finding online memes. The commercial whose tag line is “that is so 29 seconds ago” (or something like that—who can remember?) rings true. If you haven’t already, count how many times you say or hear someone say, “Yeah. I saw that already.”

Ron Bishop, professor of culture and communications at Drexel, recently published More: The Vanishing of Scale in an Over-the-Top Nation and held a talk about it on campus last week. Some other professors and I joked about whether or not we’d be able to make it to this lecture on “Americans’ increasing desire to cram as many significant experiences as possible into their lives, and the media’s role promoting this ideal.” But I did, and I was glad, because it made me think about the opposite of this skimming of knowledge that we do, how we are also excessive about so much.

He talked a bit about today’s hyperbolic language, how we are obsessed with things rather than interested in them, how we are addicted to things rather than just enjoying them. Take our frequent use of “crack,” as in “Chick-Fil-A iced tea is crack,” even though none of these terms are very P.C.—if you consider those who are actually obsessively addicted to crack.

Yesterday, one of my students was describing somebody who was grossly overweight, and someone asked him for more specificity. He said, “Well, he’s not ‘Discovery Channel My 1,000 Pound Life,’ he’s just like one of the fatter guys from Biggest Loser.” And guess what? Everyone knew what he meant.

There are too many excessive television shows to list: The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, Worst Cooks in America. Long ago, I gave up on keeping up with television, because for years I had accused my students of lying. I couldn’t believe shows like Celebrity Rehab and Obsessed existed, and now, my shock seems quaint. We watch shows like Hoarders and Intervention and My Strange Addiction and Extreme Couponing, and I’d like you to notice, if you haven’t already, that when people talk about watching these shows, they say (un)ironically, “I’m addicted to Hoarders!”

I’m not interested in other people’s addictions and compulsions; I have enough of my own. Plus, I’m trying to read all of the New York Times and HuffPo and Salon and the Inquirer and Phawker and Gawker so that I can have at least a nodding knowledge of what people are talking about. But all I really want is to go to the bar and order an “IPA” and act like I know what that means.