I have a yo-yo relationship with my RSS feed. Sometimes I am on top of the flow and it all seems very generative, the ideas the reading stir in me seem proportional to my capacity to think them through. But more often, I fall behind the pace of news I have set for myself, and the entries pile up in my Google Reader, and I start to become increasingly anxious. I feel as though I am not only falling behind in my reading, but with the times themselves, that the rising number of unread posts is an index to how irrelevant I’ve become.
But that number is also an index of my ability to focus—the higher it is, the more successful I have been at focusing on something more appropriately limited. I’ve been working on something “real.” I’ve been reading and researching, not consuming.
Sometimes when the number gets high I respond by barreling through as many as I can in one sitting, usually late at night, and usually far beyond the point at which I can think about anything I’m reading with any kind of clarity, but instead experience it all en masse as proof that I don’t know anything, everyone else knows more than I do, and wouldn’t I be better off if I stopped trying to integrate and assimilate all this knowledge and all these conversations going on over my head once and for all? What’s the point of drilling down to zero new items other than an arbitrary sense of accomplishment with no substance to it? The RSS reader makes my reading into a metered sprint to nowhere.
It becomes paralyzing, the overload. What makes me think I have something important to say, relative to all this that is already being said? What am I trying to learn anyway? What productive purpose is all of this serving? The ideas in the posts, which crop up somewhat randomly, pull me in dozens of different directions, each of which would require hours if not days to properly follow up on to the point where I could credibly respond. All the posts hit me less with their content but instead as tiny proofs of the focus of these other writers I respect, who somehow manage to evade the traps I am stuck in—the frenzied dilettantism, the arrogance to believe I can keep up with all these different disciplines. Who do I think I am, James Franco?
I would likely benefit from a better set of filters that do the focusing for me, but what then? What sort of intellectual autonomy do I have left (presuming I have any to begin with) once I’ve outsourced my ability to stay focused?