The prolific Dutch author Martin Bril who died at age fifty famously said that we miss out on more than we could ever experience. Je mist meer dan je meemaakt; it has a better cadence in the original. Our lives relentlessly chug towards the finish line while the options to fill this finite time are practically infinite. Bril wrote as if his life depended on it and only death could silence him. His curiosity knew no limits and he would not have run out of ideas had he lived another thirty years and penned another ten thousand columns. I couldn’t have read them all. No one can digest the daily output of new books, music and movies, not even if you limit yourself to the pick of the bunch. Even What’s New on Netflix can be a day job.
The quantitative aspects of the digital world stretches our powers of imagination as do the relative distances between planets, stars and galaxies. It doesn’t matter whether youtube serves five or fifty million hours of hilarious cat footage. It doesn’t matter how many lifetimes it would take to read all the books you could store on a cheap three-terabyte USB drive. Last spring holiday I found myself browsing through the shelves of Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester (Kent, UK), Britain’s largest second-hand and rare bookshop – self-proclaimed, but I’m ready to believe it. Places like these bring home the utter futility to absorb so much as a sliver of all that information, much less remember it. You stand a better chance with the audio collection of the Rotterdam public library, but its 500K CDs and 300K records still would take a hundred years of listening for a solid sixteen hours a day. The added absurdity is that you would probably not even be lucky at Baggins if you searched for a particular book. Why would you? According to google 130 million different titles have been printed in all of human history. Not even Spotify has everything that was every released on CD, which only took off in the mid eighties (I know, it’s also because many record labels don’t deal with Spotify). All that was ever released on vinyl and shellack over the last 100+ years dwarfs the number of CD titles. And you can only marvel at the creative output that was never committed to stone or parchment.
It’s an actual miracle the Greek playwrights were handed down through the millennia. Many artists did not get the recognition they deserved during their lifetime, van Gogh being the most infamous example. But even Jane Austen didn’t sell more than 2000 copies of Emma. Now Pride and Prejudice is the all-time favourite download on project Gutenberg, the treasure trove of 54,000 works in the public domain, which means free as in freedom. Don’t think that being cavalier about cultural heritage was characteristic of the distant past. Between 1966 and ’68 Dutch television aired the pioneering musical comedy Ja Zuster, Nee Zuster whose songs were to become legendary with a generation. It’s all gone forever. No-one under the age of fifty-five is ever to enjoy reruns, much less a dvd box. The Ampex videotapes cost a whopping 2,200 euros a piece in today’s money. Budgets were tight so they were erased for re-use not long after airing. Let’s not do the maths on the many hours of compressed HD footage you can put on that cheap USB drive. We don’t know how lucky we are. Sure, the limitless and unfading memory of the cloud has distinct downsides. People live to regret that their inebriated karaoke rendition at last year’s company Christmas party went viral and is now forever searchable for all no-longer-that-prospective future employers. But fifty years after the fact it’s equally baffling that apparently nobody thought it worth a few extra tapes to preserve ten hours of classical popular culture.
Is there a point to all this musing about infinite data? Well, for starters I am relieved that we needn’t risk losing our digital cultural heritage for want of affordable storage. Secondly I think that our fashionable fear or missing out is the least productive reaction you can have in the face of all the richness that is so freely available. FOMO makes you nervous, it scatters your attention to the point that nothing will stick anymore. Your time is the most precious resource, but if you try to juggle five balls you’ll drop them all – I can barely handle two. Just accept that you miss out on virtually everything compared to what you will actually consume in your lifetime and let that encourage you to become more aware so you can choose to experience and enjoy it more deeply. If I make an optimistic estimate of my future health and lust for reading I might just manage a measly five hundred more titles before I die. That’s one promille of Baggins’s shelf space. I could probably double that through a number of draconic anti-social measures that would surely end in divorce, like cancelling our Netflix subscription. Nah, there wouldn’t be time to split my sides watching Fawlty Towers and Blackadder for the tenth time, even though I know them off by heart.