This Blog Intentionally Left Blank

I occasionally spend my free time bouncing around the internet. I’m sure you’ve done the same: you read a friend’s blog, and follow a link to a related page, and follow a link on that page to another related page, and so on and so forth, until you finally end up with something that isn’t really related to the original story—and sometimes isn’t related to anything at all.

On one such cyber-stroll, I eventually came upon something rather surprising: a blank web page. At least, it was almost blank. It had no graphics, no links, no story, no ads, no background template, and no annoying animated GIFs of a dancing hamster. It did contain 5 words, though: “This page intentionally left blank.”

That drew my interest (it doesn’t take much, apparently), mostly because it was something I had puzzled about in the offline world. The mailed statements I received each quarter from an investment firm always contained several pages marked with the phrase “This page intentionally left blank.” This bugged me, not only because it seemed an unnecessary waste of paper, but because the self-proclaimed blank pages were not actually blank. They would have been blank, had someone not bothered to print the words “This page intentionally left blank” on the paper. So, not only were the pages not intentionally left blank, they were intentionally not left blank. It is sort of like the theoretical compulsive liar who claims that he never, ever tells the truth, but always lies. If he truly always lies, then he would be telling the truth about always lying. This means he was not lying when he said that he always lies, which means that he does not always tell lies, which means his statement about always lying was a lie. And then your brain explodes.

Anyway, it turns out that the intentionally blank webpage was part of an online effort known as the “This Page Intentionally Left Blank Project”, or TPILBP. Their website, this-page-intentionally-left-blank.org, encouraged webmasters to add intentionally blank pages to their sites. TPILBP even provides step-by-step instructions for how to create blank pages, with helpful tips such as step 3: “Check your pages for errors”.  This is actually very important, since there are few things more embarrassing, or more damaging to your reputation as a web designer, than typos on a blank page.

TPILBP states that its main mission is “to offer internet wanderers a place of quietness and simplicity on the overcrowded World Wide Web”. In other words, they believe people are going to come upon these blank pages and gratefully spend a few minutes staring at them, thinking deep thoughts. Never mind that the same effect could be achieved with scotch tape and a white sheet of paper, or by (gasp) turning off the computer screen entirely. Our lives are too busy, too noisy, too crowded, the TPILBP people imply. In the modern world, nothingness comes at a premium.

They may have a point.

Our lives are becoming ever more filled with information. Call it clutter, visual noise, or even multi-tasking, the fact remains that we are constantly bombarded with messages of various types. Forget billboards and commercial breaks; companies now buy ad space on cars and have their logos digitally superimposed on football fields during NFL broadcasts. Growing up, my family’s TV received 3 channels; now 100 or more are included with “basic” service. Instead of a 30-minute broadcast each night to relay the news of the day, we now have multiple 24-hour news channels with scrolling tickers across the bottom of the screen so you can follow more than one story at a time. Cell phones and Blackberries keep us in constant communication, while iPods drown out the world while we jog. And retail business owners have started putting catalogue pages or flat-screen TVs above bathroom urinals, to insure that we don’t have to suffer through a single moment of original thought.

If this “information overload” is truly a problem, then it is a huge one: a University of California study estimated that the world produced 5 exabytes of new information in one year. How much is 5 exabytes? Well, it is the same thing as 5 billion gigabytes, or about 37,000 times the amount of information stored in the Library of Congress. Divide that by the world’s population, and you have 800 MB of new information for each man, woman, and child—which would be equivalent to a book 30 feet thick. And that’s not the scary part: the numbers above are from 2002, and that same study found that the amount of new information being produced was doubling about every 3 years. So, those numbers were probably twice that large in 2005, and will be twice that again in 2008. It is, literally, more information than we can process.

Hence, you get things like TPILBP. And art exhibits that consist of nothing but white canvasses. And even things like 4’33”, a “song” written by weirdo John Cage that consists entirely of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. (The song—which officially consists of three movements—was originally “performed” on piano, but can be adapted to any instrument, including air guitar.)

It is also likely the reason that the term “quiet time”, and its practice, has become such a central focus of modern Christianity. We must tune out this world, we are told, at least for a little while. God doesn’t like to shout.

It makes me wonder what life was like before everything that we now call “modern”. Just 100 years ago, anything we would consider “electronics” today did not exist, at least for the average person. There was no such thing as TV. No radio to listen to. Films were novelties, and were silent. Far fewer people lived in cities, and there was no quick and easy transportation to get to any live entertainment—the only “entertainment” they really had in those days. What did people do with their time? Actually talk with each other, about subjects deeper than the last episode of The Office? Have a real, ongoing relationship with their families? Get out to meet and truly know their neighbors?

Did their local Protestant preacher encourage them to have a “loud time”, by reaching out and engaging the people around them instead of sitting in the wilderness alone?

This is not one of those “back to the stone age!” rants, but I do have a point somewhere in there. I think. Considering the subject, however, it would be a bit hypocritical for me to drag this out any longer and tell you how to think. Maybe it will give you something to contemplate during your quiet time.

Besides, I need to go practice my air guitar.


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© 2007 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.