Anyone with a smartphone knows we exist in an information age. While the vast expanse of information available at our fingertips may seem majestic on the surface, we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to the instant availability of data.
In a recent Time article Lev Grossman discussed what he called “humanity’s newest problem: data.” Considering the rapid rate at which the availability of data has come to mankind, he notes how quickly information can become meaningless. “We’re rich in data,” he wrote, “but the returns are diminishing rapidly, because after a certain point the more information you have, the harder it becomes to extract meaning from it.”
What Grossman proposes is an “old answer” to this new problem. He references William Playfair’s 18th-century inventions of the bar chart, pie chart and line graph, each of which offers a way to assign meaning to otherwise meaningless data. Grossman argues that this is what we need today and occasionally see in artistic endeavors like Bostonography’s depictions of Boston bus routes and Neil Halloran’s “The Fallen of World War II,” which uses graphs to represent the millions of deaths suffered during the Holocaust. Grossman’s goal is to keep intact mankind’s ability to assign meaning to the mass of information we face.
Our approach to information determines its meaning.
I believe Grossman is on the right track. Scripture teaches us that knowledge is a rare jewel. Therefore, attempts to better present the information we have certainly inches us toward this end. However, the reason we feel inundated with information has more to do with our approach than our presentation. Knowledge is often seen as synonymous with accumulation. Operating out of a post-Enlightenment framework, we approach information as an object to be controlled. It is no wonder instantaneous information is so appealing: it speaks to our fundamental desire to reign. However, the more we seek to master the information as a mere object the more we grow increasingly disinterested in what it reveals. You can never truly be astonished by what you control.
As Christians, we must acknowledge that our approach to information determines its meaning. We must approach data in the same manner we approach knowing God: relationally. To approach information relationally is to conceive of knowing as a process of being apprehended, not an instance of having comprehension. As in learning to build a table, it is not enough to merely stockpile data about carpentry; you must subject yourself to the grain of the wood, the vibration of the saw and you must trust the object being known.
The process of learning to pray or learning to study God’s word demonstrates relational knowing. We too often see the information before us as objective particles of data to be manhandled, rather than a subject capable of drawing us nearer to the throne of our King. Our data belongs to a God that, at every turn, desires intimacy with His children and will, at no point, cease pursuing us. While it is a good thing to present information in a new way, no true meaning can be assigned to information unless we understand it to be a grand welcome into the process of knowing and being known by God.