Addiction to news #
It’s not over yet but I’m fairly sure when I look back on 2020 it will be as one of the most historically significant years of my life so far (mainly surpassed only by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but I was only one year old then so not sure if I can really count that). And of course we happen to be experiencing all these tremendously consequential and unprecedented events (I’m thinking specifically about the US election and the news from October 2 that US President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19) in an age where information is immediately available, where news is constantly manufactured and consumed at a pace that can become overwhelming and at times even feel sickening.
The obsessive desire to be constantly up-to-date is at times very strong for me. There is a persistent feeling of urgency: I need to know what’s going on, it’s important, imperative. And when things are changing so fast, the sense of urgency is compounded by the feeling that if I don’t stay up-to-date now, when the next thing happens I won’t understand it because I wasn’t keeping track of the situation.
I often think about how humanity stayed informed and aware of what was happening in the world before the internet. Newspapers, the main way people consumed news until ten years ago or so, provide a very different experience than the constant stream of updates on today’s internet. News accumulates over a day, informed and professional people write about it, and then it is collected into a single publication with a defined start and end (the pages of the paper), ready to be consumed. With online news, this is impossible: all parts of the above recipe are missing. News accumulates every minute, live blogs are constantly refreshed by writers who are presumably not the finest the publication has to offer. And there is no way of knowing where all today’s news can be found. Articles are changed, headlines are edited to receive more clicks, everything is designed to look like it’s in the “most current” state every time you look at it, meaning you need to keep coming back to remain up-to-date.
I personally fall victim to this constantly, and it’s only when I take a step back and think about how different things used to be that I realise how sick it all is and how badly it affects my ability to concentrate and stay focussed on other parts of my life. I’m thinking a lot about this specific period, where I’m spending probably three times the normal amount of time in my home, not going anywhere. Craig Mod put it as eloquently as he usually does in his recent Ridgeline newsletter, constantly checking the news numbs the skill of observation and dulls one’s sense of presence in the landscape and in the moment. I find the distracted mindset that the constant checking creates permeates into other parts of my life. Already struggling with deciding what of the many different things I like to concentrate my time on, that time when it comes around is hard to devote singularly to the single chosen task.
There’s a bunch of applications and tools to help with this problem (Freedom, Apple Screen Time, RescueTime etc), their existence an indictment of the problem and an indication of how prevalent it is. I’m thinking about going a week with a very different consumption regimen and although my first thought is to try and use one of these existing tools, I think I’m going to try and go “cold turkey”. I’d add “be in charge of how he spends his time and attention” to Heinlein’s list of things a human being should be able to do. Reclaiming control of our time and attention is not something I should need help with.
What I do need help with is the “digesting”. I want to reclaim my attention and check the news fewer times throughout the day, but I don’t (yet anyway) want to completely disconnect from what’s happening, particularly at this extremely critical time in the history of the world. So my current goal is to find the best way (RSS feeds? Email newsletters?) to get the news I want digested daily and delivered to me without me having to look for it.