One of my favorite ideas from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that of the Total Perspective Vortex (TPV). In the book, the TPV was a machine built to show beings a glimpse of the infinity of creation… and it’s used as the ultimate torture device. Human’s brains, it seems, are not meant to process the expanse of the universe. I find the idea that knowing how tiny we are in the universe would be the ultimate torture is darkly funny.
Recently, however, I’ve been feeling a bit like we are all plugged into the TPV and someone is slowly turning up the wattage. We are living in a world where information seems to flow into our eyes and ears faster and faster. More things pop up with breaking news alerts, attention-grabbing chimes or text messages than ever before. More and more screens and streams vie for our limited attention. Short, looping videos that we can swipe through increase the breadth of information we take in by reducing the depth.
You know what makes this expanded view of the world troubling? For me, it’s the feeling that we are seeing more and more of our world… while the number of things we can control doesn’t budge. We’re not just seeing, hearing and knowing an ever-increasing amount… we’re seeing, hearing and knowing an ever-increasing amount of things that we have absolutely no control over.
A bigger world with no more control can make us feel less important and empowered. It can make us feel like we are a drop of water tossed around in an increasingly vast ocean, and you know what? That’s a lonely, frustrating way to feel.
I think these feelings of powerlessness may be why people seem to be acting meaner than ever before. Rude behaviors in public, mistreatment of people doing customer service work, aggressive driving… couldn’t it all be a product of people feeling that the world has gotten so big that they desperately need to find a way to show they still have some control?
Could people be more likely to break rules or hurt others when they feel a need to prove to themselves (and the world) that they are not inconsequential or that they still have some power? Could the epidemic of loneliness be related to feeling smaller and smaller in an expanding world?
To be clear, I think there has never been a more exciting time to be alive. Our ability to learn and connect is incredible and growing by the day. I also think that the potential to feel like we’re in the Total Perspective Vortex, that we are so small in a world that is so large and beyond our control, is more real today than ever.
Going forward, let’s remember that it’s not wrong to be selective about what information we take in. Surviving in a world of limitless noise and knowledge will almost certainly involve making choices about what we spend our emotional energy on, and how much time we spend just gazing at the outlets that would like to have our attention. We have the power to step out of the TPV, or to turn its wattage back down for ourselves.
Sometimes, it’s worth the effort to turn off all the noise and focus exclusively on the things we can control: The work we do with our hands, the relationships we have without screens, and the impact we make on those around us. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe it’s not you. Maybe the world is just too big and it’s time to take back our focus and put it where it matters most. Right in front of us.