Swallowing the Ocean – The Case for Information Overload

One of my favorite books as a kid was The Five Chinese Brothers. I loved the story of five identical siblings who escaped a wrongful conviction and death sentence through smarts and special skills. However, my favorite part and the bit forever burned in my memory was the first brother who could swallow the sea. The thought of uncovering hidden treasure, pirate skeletons, shipwrecks, exotic fish and the unknown, unseen bottom of the sea was irresistible to a curious kid.

Today I am just as curious if not more. I want new information, hidden knowledge, the practical and the ephemeral. Every day I want to swallow not just the sea, but the ocean. Scouring websites, twitter, email newsletters, rss feeds and countless other sources, I strip mine for the remarkable, the random and the wonderful. Deploying apps and search engines, I connect the infinite dot-to-dot of our world. My desktop, iPhone and iPad are gateways to the curated and serendipitous discovery of knowledge, both useful and useless.

Ten Steps to a Successful Brand Portfolio Strategy. Read it. Peter Saville’s inspiration for the cover art on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Watched it. A new book about the Mars Attacks trading cards. Ordered it.

My meme driven life can be a daunting task. There is so much ocean and I can only devour so much. When I finally end my day and reluctanly put my phone on the bedside table for the last time, I recount what I learned and try to synthesize and make connections. Like the first brother I must release the ocean and start again the next day.

Last week I heard a terrific Creative Mornings lecture from designer Simon Collison who advised us all to clear away the distractions. Ignore the endless twitter stream, avoid email, turn off your devices and focus on the task at hand. Be productive. Design. Build. Make. If the information is important enough, it will find you.

I agree that we need to step away from distraction to focus and finish the job, but there is too much to learn, see and experience. Too many great ideas. Too much remarkable brilliance to fit into such a short day. I am on information overload and it’s a good thing. The hunting and gathering energizes and drives me forward. It’s what I do. Excuse me, but the tide is rising and I’ve got an ocean to swallow.

If a song gets played in the woods and there is nobody there to meme it, does it make a sound?

I had a fascinating conversation with a great and very smart friend last week. Among the many things we discussed, we touched on what it means to be culturally relevant in 2012.

With mass audiences rapidly splintering and subdividing into various tribes and subcultures, does broad cultural relevance exist beyond huge news stories, live sports and blockbuster movies? We all watch our own shows, listen to our own music and find the news and information that matters to us. Everything that isn’t interesting or relevant, we just ignore.

So what is a hit anymore? The shelf life for anything that sparks our imagination has become so short. New shows, songs, articles, movies, books and memes crowd our inboxes and social feeds every day, demanding our limited attention. If something doesn’t grab our immediate interest, chances are it will disappear quickly.

Music is especially hard hit as physical formats are rapidly disappearing and most music can be found for free without much effort. Plus, there is just so much available. We can all find the music that matters most to us and the multi-platinum crossover records just don’t happen anymore. I’ve noticed that the only songs that really ascend to mass popularity are those that become omnipresent cultural memes, parodied, lip dubbed and burned into our collective cultural conscience.

So does the song make the meme or does the meme make the song?

Two recent songs we’ve all heard way too many times are perfect examples of what it means to be a hit in 2012. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” have both become mega-hits, overplayed and hogging the cultural spotlight. But are they relevant on their own merits or because they have become ubiquitous hit memes that reach way beyond the original work?

I heard “Call Me Maybe” several times, but it was the Harvard baseball team’s video that seemed to propel it into the stratosphere. A friend sent me the Gotye video months ago, but it was just another catchy song until the Walk Off the Earth cover or the Star Wars parody showed up on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Cultural relevance almost seems determined by the broad meta-meming (yeah, I think I just made that word up) of the original rather than the original itself.

Will this phenomenon extend across all forms of content where everything becomes an ultimately disposable meme? Or will content become a truly fascinating and creative space where art, music, film, television and books all serve as source material for a virtual cultural palimpsest with deep meaning and resonance? My guess leans toward the former, but I want to know what you think.