It's just after nine on Monday morning. Kyra Phillips is polluting the CNN newsroom and I think I've settled on eggs and Red Bull for breakfast. I scroll through the text messages on my iPhone while leafing through the morning paper. As I scarf down the eggs, I switch to MSNBC and the news crawl catches my eye with a blur of words like "China," "Republican," "Disaster" and "Climate Shift."
My brain is still partly focused on the continuous flow of news when Twitter - the popular social networking Web site - starts demanding my attention. Checking Twitter from my iPhone, I note that 390 updates have flooded my inbox, all from a variety of contacts addressing numerous subjects. Everything from the mundanes and absurdities of day-to-day life, alerts about upcoming albums and films, breaking news, pictures, rumor mills, video links and other miscellaneous hilarity.
It's now 9:25 a.m., and my iPhone has only barely begun to perform a measure of its capabilities.
This is the daily reality for millions of Americans. Information is no longer in high demand - it's in exponential demand. Of course, it's human nature to want to explore the world around us. But is this lifestyle of a constant, insatiable hunger for information a normal part of human nature, or is it the outward sign of an unhealthy obsession?
Religious tradition holds that it's embedded into the design of man to ultimately demand knowledge. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the book of Genesis shows that the first people were placed in Paradise and commissioned to tend to this garden, where they could eat of all the trees except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve is ensnared by her senses and, in her humanity, takes a bite of the poison fruit after being promised she will become like God.
Eastern tradition tells of a young prince Siddhartha who once lived a life opulence. He becomes disgusted with the aristocratic environment he was bred into and becomes hungry for more than what he has come to know. He desires to see beyond the palace walls and to meet his subjects. After he runs away, he encounters an old beggar and ventures into the heart of human suffering to pursue the teaching of enlightenment and understanding.
Hesiod's "Theogony" includes tales of Greek myths that show how the god of the cosmos swallowed the physical manifestations of knowledge to digest all of it's intricacies. The Greeks, who westernized education, also sought to understand the natural world. Pagan cults of that time also made strong demands of their idols, asking for knowledge to literally burst out of the statues.
But I doubt all the poets, prophets and priests could foresee a time when information would become as abundant as it is today; a time when stone tablets or a town crier wouldn't fit the bill.
Through this near obsession for information, the general public has reinvented the concept of word of mouth. Twitter's slogan is: "Share and discover what's happening right now, anywhere in the world." Each post, or message, on Twitter is allowed 140 characters to convey any idea, thought, or comment. Each Twitter user can follow other users' posts, and their posts can be followed by still other users, and so on.
Most news Web sites have options to post links to their articles on Twitter. So as a user, I can post something like this on Twitter: "onion.com/dh56sJ via @TheOnion - Bald Eagle Tired Of Everyone Just Assuming It Supports War."
According to Twitterment, the twitter search engine, 1.7 million posts, or tweets, are sent from Twitter users each day. Quantacast, a site used to monitor and tally the traffic to any particular Web site, reports Twitter had 238 million visits per month in 2009, and Twitter's Web site only accounts for 47 percent of the tweets that are sent (the rest come through other software applications).
That many posts sent out to innumerable users spreading common knowledge, news, facts and observations - that's a tremendous amount of information shared on a daily basis.
An example of how this works can be seen right in The Sentinel newsroom. City Editor Bethany Fehlinger uses Twitter to tweet about veganism, President Obama and healthy living. Reporter Marjorie Stromberg tweets about the media industry, polar bears and handbags. As a Sentinel correspondent, I tweet about how I can't afford tickets to the annual Coachella Music Festival, my Red Bull intake, U2 and Soren Kierkegaard quotes. We each follow each other's posts, so Bethany gets to see my complaints and Kierkegaard quotes, Marjorie sees Bethany's links to vegan stuff and I see Marjorie's links to articles about Alaskan polar bears. This is news and information being circulated and redistributed in a convenient way.
On a larger scale, it works even better. Just the other week, I was waiting for my carpool, when someone suggested that I take pictures of the swollen Susquehanna River along US 322 on my way to Harrisburg, due to the recent heavy rains. My carpool was late, but I still wanted to get pictures for The Sentinel, so I posted a message on Twitter asking for that favor. Someone following my tweets, who just happened to be a friend and professional photographer, saw the message, and within a few hours I had professional shots of the river cresting at high levels.
I don't think society has developed an unhealthy obsession with information. We have simply progressed and responded to a need to spread and take in a constant flow of information. Truth be told, my morning would have been radically different if I had just started with checking Twitter - I could have skipped Kyra Phillips and the headache I got from the crawl on MSNBC.
Charles Peters is a Sentinel correspondent. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.