Fomo, they call it: the fear of missing out. A definition from 2006 in the online Urban Dictionary speaks of “the fear that if you miss a party or event you will miss out on something great”. The Urban Dictionary in fact has hundreds of definitions of Fomo and its offshoots – including, yes of course, “fomosexual” (“hooking up for fear that the opportunity will not present itself again”). But these days, it’s more often employed to describe an online condition. Jenna Worthan in the New York Times diagnoses “the blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media”.
If all of this means nothing to you, count your blessings. You’re not, as it were, missing anything. If, however, your thumb and finger bear callouses from all that refreshing, there’s an unmissable essay at the NPR website. It is by Linda Holmes, and headlined “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything”.
Holmes is more concerned with books and films – those dusty old things – than new media, but her counsel is just as applicable. Confronted by the pure mathematical reality that no one can ever make beyond a tiny dent in the mountains of readable material, there are two solutions, she says: to cull or surrender. To cull requires making decisions about genres, types, authors, that don’t appeal, to delete them from your cultural diet. To surrender is simply to accept the inevitability that there is no completion, and to carry on.
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.”
There is an inescapable sadness in that act of surrender, too:
That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.
It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.
She concludes: “What we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.”
Let’s stop and reflect on those thoughts for a minute. Well, you stop and reflect. I’ve got another piece to précis.