Sipping from the Fire Hose

I’m convinced that half of my fairly rugged immune system is the result of traveling to many different climates and biomes, and the other half is the consequence of drinking from the hose in our backyard when I was a kid.

How many aphids did I swallow? How many tardigrades did I quaff?

How many gallons of water, over the course of those years, did I gleefully guzzle?

A fire hose is no standard hose. It’s reinforced to sustain amplified pressure, averaging around 100 to 300 psi (pound-force per square inch). For reference, 100 psi is enough force to send a fire hose wriggling around like an anaconda, and sufficient strength to throw firemen struggling to get it under control around like a bucking bronco.

Fire hoses are used to send vast quantities of water arching over distant fires, and the pressure required to make that happen is impressive.

When I consume media — tweets, books, podcasts, movies, TV shows, music — it can sometimes feel like I’m wrestling with a fire hose.

There’s just so much out there, all of it streaming at me 24/7, and the focus and stamina it can take just to wrangle that serpentine tube into a position where I can get my bearings, and make comprehendible some portion of what flows forth from its cavernous belly, can be exhausting.

It’s not easy to simply sip from such a flow of information and entertainment. It’s easy to get pulled in — pulled under! — to the point where extracting yourself is nearly impossible. You grow gills to survive the flood, and eventually find life on land too difficult to tolerate. Without that torrent blasting you from all sides at all times, there’s less pressure, less intensity.

Life at 14.7 psi, at standard sea-level atmospheric pressure, can be intolerable once you’ve adjusted to a lifestyle in which you’re constantly bombarded by sensory information, by pressure on all sides. Normal existence without a continuous barrage of inputs can seem…empty.

This fire hose we’ve created is truly one of the wonders of the modern world, because of the vast reach it provides us. More people are capable of not just producing, but projecting more information (data, experiences, visuals, sounds) out across the vast expanses of the planet than ever before.

Each and every one of us have a voice that is booming and god-like. That we can listen to and experience context from others around the globe is equally impressive.

But like children who don’t know their own strength, we too need to take care in how we use these powers. We need to filter and constrain, utilizing our full might only when circumstance calls for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we need to turn the music down to a whisper, but it is important to recognize that when everything is amped up to 11, all we perceive is noise. To get the most out of our newly acquired abilities, we need to use them intentionally, in both production and consumption.

Sipping from a fire hose isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

It requires that we, first, recognize our own ability to wrangle this giant dino-snake that instinctually wriggles and tail-whips people into submission. We’re not often told that we have the capacity to suppress it, to modulate its cascade, but we can. We just have to want to, and then actually do so.

It also requires that we realize the necessity to filter, curate, and share intentionally.

Rather than deciding we all need to stand underneath this waterfall at all times if we want to know what’s going on, we can instead listen to people who have become expert at sorting out relevant cup-fulls of information and music and TV and everything else from the larger tsunami, granting many of the same benefits, without the possibility of drowning.

Much better to sip from a cup than to drink directly from the nozzle. The days of safe, slow-flow backyard hoses are over, but that doesn’t mean we have to choose between drowning or going thirsty.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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